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Toddler

What is Pica?

Susan Zogheib, MHS, RD, LDN
January 3, 2019 . 2 min read

Many people—adults and infants alike—crave chocolate occasionally, but what about craving laundry starch, plaster, chalk, dirt, paper, or clay? People who have these kinds of cravings are often diagnosed with pica, an eating disorder named after the Latin word for magpie, a bird known for eating almost anything.

Pica is a pattern of craving unusual non-food materials with no nutritional value, such as laundry detergent, chalk, plaster, dirt, paper, clay, toothpaste, coffee grounds, hairballs, animal feces, or sand. To be diagnosed as pica, these cravings must last for at least one month. Pica cravings are the body’s attempt to compensate for the missing vitamins and minerals that are lacking from diet.

Pica is seen in young children more frequently than adults. It’s estimated that between 10 and 32 percent of children ages 1-6 have these behaviors. Children are at a higher risk of developing pica. Women can also develop pica during pregnancy. Some experts believe it may be linked to iron deficiency.

Women and children who practice pica (i.e., eating nonfood items such as pottery, clay, and dirt) are at a higher risk of developing lead poisoning because they might eat something contiminated with lead, such as lead-based paint. Even a small amount of lead consumed by children may affect their development and behavior. Children with greater lead levels may also have problems with learning and reading, delayed growth, and hearing loss. Extremely high levels of lead in the body can cause permanent brain damage and even death.

Taking precautions can stop pica from developing and/or make it easier to treat. If you are pregnant and have unusual cravings, let your physician know immediately. It is also recommended that young children with pica are screened for blood lead concentration; consult with your physician for more information.

Sources:

  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • Lead Exposure in Children Affect Brain and Behavior.
    Centers for Disease and Preventions
  • Guidelines for Identification and Management of Lead Exposure in Pregnant and Lactating Women.
    National Organization for Rare Disorders
  • PICA.

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