4 Causes And Symptoms Of Pica: Eating The Uneatable

Pica Eating Disorder

Nibbling on bits of chalk, dirt, sand, and even paint might seem utterly disgusting to the average person, but for someone with pica, these are perfectly usual cravings. Horrifying as it may seem, for those with symptoms of pica, an intense desire to eat non-food materials is not only typical but almost normal and routine.

Pica, as the condition is called, alludes to the magpie’s (also called Pica pica) habit of eating pretty much anything it can lay its beak on. For those with pica, characterized by the desire to eat non-nutritious objects that are not what you might consider food, this is a reality.


According to the American Pregnancy Association, as many as 25 to 30 percent of all young children have pica cravings. And while pregnant women have gone down in the annals of history for all manner of bizarre craving, pica cravings are not as common.1

So how do you know if your cravings are pica cravings? Here’s a look at symptoms and underlying causes that trigger pica cravings.


1. Craving For Inedible Items

The simplest way to know if you have a pica craving is to just keep track of what you crave to eat. While you may not always give in to temptation, it’s worth reflecting on what you felt an uncontrollable urge for – even if you couldn’t lay your hands on it or managed to resist it.

Dirt and clay are common cravings but you may also find you yearn for stones, plaster, animal feces, and sand.2 Laundry starch is a popular pica craving among pregnant women. Smoky cravings may cause you to lean toward burnt matches, cigarette ashes, or charcoal. On the other side, some crave the clean hit of toothpaste or soap. You might also crave for things easily found in the larder – cornstarch, coffee grounds, ice, and even baking soda – but these are odd pica cravings nonetheless. Some cravings, say for mothballs or paint, could be downright dangerous.3


2. Iron Deficiency, Usually In Pregnant Women

If you are anemic or are pregnant and have low iron levels, you may have cravings as a result of iron deficiency. Research from the American Dietetic Association journal confirms that pregnancy-related pica cravings are linked to iron deficiency.4 So, if you have unusual cravings, it may be a good idea to get your iron levels checked. You could then substitute these odd non-food items with a proper, prescribed iron supplement – giving your body the nourishment it needs, the right way.5 Alongside the craving for odd foods, you may also experience dizziness, headache, lethargy, and shortness of breath, all of which are common in iron-deficiency anemia.

3. Zinc, Magnesium, And Copper Deficiency

Besides iron, researchers and medical professionals surmise that a deficiency of other essential nutrients like zinc, magnesium, and copper could also cause pica cravings.6 Other symptoms of these deficiencies may manifest alongside the eating disorder – such as, skin diseases, allergies, and poor immunity due to zinc deficiency; fatigue, frequent illnesses, joint pain, and anemia due to copper deficiency; and muscle cramps and twitches, anxiety, and irregular heartbeat due to magnesium deficiency.


4. Developmental Disorder, Especially In Kids

If you have a child with an autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disorder and suspect they might have pica, note down what non-food objects or substances they are trying to eat and how often. Also track if there are certain situations or times when the child exhibits this behavior. This disorder can usually be traced to issues with identifying what is edible and what is not, or to a need for “sensory feedback” because the child likes the feel of that texture in their mouth.7

Pica Symptoms In Children

As one guide for parents suggests, you need to be watchful of the following signs that could indicate pica. Remember, feedback from other caregivers/ teachers about consumption of non-food items or any of the following symptoms is a warning sign.8

  • Tendency to put objects in the mouth
  • Constantly on the lookout for such objects to eat
  • Trouble telling apart non-food objects from food (for instance, the child may nibble on a plastic or paper plate or table mat)
  • Evidence of non-food objects like bits of plastic or strings or little stones in the stools

How Pica Is Diagnosed

For your problem to be diagnosed as pica, the baseline is at least one month of these cravings and consumption of non-food, non-nutritional objects. To establish whether or not you have pica, your doctor will conduct a few checks and tests. Expect to go through a physical exam. You’ll also have to share your complete medical history as well as minute details of your eating habits. In addition, the doctor will check for any intestinal blockages or toxicity resulting from the consumption of non-food substances. At times, blood tests and X-rays may also be needed. One key test is for anemia, since iron deficiency is closely linked to the risk of having pica.9

Since pica is also common among those with OCD, developmental disabilities, and mental health issues, the doctor will also have to check for these as an underlying cause for the unusual eating behavior.