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21st May 2024

Understanding pica cravings – causes, implications, and management

Sophie Collins

Pica cravings

A person with pica cravings may consume soil, clay, paint, paper, coal, wood, string, pebbles, hair, ice or freezer frost

The term ‘pica cravings’ refers to the compulsive desire to eat things that are not considered food.

This condition can be puzzling and concerning for those who experience it or for those who see it in other people. 

Understanding why pica occurs and how to manage it is important for maintaining both physical and mental health.

What are pica cravings?

Pica is a disorder characterised by the consumption of substances that have no nutritional value. 

These cravings can vary widely and encompass a range of inedible items like soil, paint chips, paper, and ice. 

While this is most commonly seen in children and pregnant women, it can occur in anyone at any age.

Why do pica cravings occur?

The exact cause of this condition is not fully understood, but several factors are believed to contribute to the development of these unusual cravings:

  1. Nutritional Deficiencies: One of the most common theories is that pica cravings may be linked to nutritional deficiencies, particularly minerals like iron and zinc. The body might crave non-food items as a misguided attempt to obtain these missing nutrients.
  2. Mental Health Disorders: Pica is sometimes associated with mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), schizophrenia, and autism spectrum disorders. These conditions can affect impulse control and lead to abnormal eating behaviours.
  3. Developmental Issues: In children, pica can be part of normal development, particularly in those with developmental delays. Young children often explore their environment by putting things in their mouths, but persistent pica can indicate a deeper issue.
  4. Cultural and Socioeconomic Factors: In some cultures, the consumption of certain non-food items is traditional and not considered abnormal. Additionally, socioeconomic factors, such as poverty and lack of access to food, can also contribute to the development of pica.

How to deal with pica cravings

Managing pica cravings requires a comprehensive approach that addresses both the physical and psychological aspects of the condition:

  1. Medical Evaluation: The first step in addressing this condition is to seek a medical evaluation. A healthcare provider can test for nutritional deficiencies and recommend appropriate supplements if needed. Blood tests can reveal deficiencies in iron, zinc, or other vital nutrients that may be contributing to the cravings.
  2. Mental Health Support: Consulting with a mental health professional can help address any underlying psychological factors. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and other therapeutic interventions can be effective in managing compulsive behaviours associated with pica.
  3. Nutritional Counselling: A registered dietitian can give guidance on maintaining a balanced diet and addressing any nutritional gaps. Ensuring that the diet includes adequate vitamins and minerals can help reduce the urge to consume non-food items.
  4. Environmental Modifications: Reducing access to non-food items and creating a safe environment can help manage this, especially in children. This might involve childproofing living spaces and closely monitoring their activities.
  5. Behavioural Interventions: Positive reinforcement and behavioural strategies can be useful, particularly for children. Rewarding good behaviours and redirecting attention away from non-food items can help diminish pica tendencies.
  6. Education and Awareness: Educating the person and their support system about pica is crucial. Understanding the condition can reduce stigma and promote effective management strategies.

Pica cravings can be confusing and potentially harmful, but with appropriate medical and psychological intervention, they can be effectively managed. 

By addressing nutritional deficiencies, providing mental health support, and creating a safe environment, those with pica can overcome these unusual cravings and improve their overall well-being.