Pica Eating Disorder – Causes, Risks, Statistics, And Treatments

Pica is an eating disorder that leads to persistently hunger for non-food items that don’t have any nutritional benefit.

This disorder can be found in all genders and for all ages. However, its most commonly found affecting small children, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities.

Pica Eating Disorder
In this article, we will provide a clear and concise overview of Pica, its signs, stats, diagnosis, and treatments.

That said, if you believe you or a loved one may be suffering from Pica, take note of the signs of Pica and contact the NEDA (National Eating Disorders Association) helpline (1).

Pica Disorder Defined:

Four criteria must be met for someone to be diagnosed with Pica (2):

  • The person must have been eating non-food items with no nutritional value for at least one month.
  • Craving for non-food items is not part of the normal development stage for the person.
  • No cultural practices or social norms associated with eating non-food items are present.
  • Patient is pregnent, has a mental disorder, is in danger, or requires additional treatment.

One of the exceptions that don’t diagnose Pica is children under two years of age who are mouthing, a natural developmental stage for two-year-olds. This is when babies are expanding their taste palettes by putting various objects in their mouths.

According to studies, 75% of infants up to 12 months old, as well as 15% of children aged 2-3 years, put non-food items with no nutritional value in their months (3).

Typical items that Pica sufferers eat:
  • Chalk
  • Paint
  • Gum
  • Charcoal
  • Soap
  • Cloth
  • Soil
  • Hair
  • Talcum powder
  • String
  • Metal
  • Animal feces
  • Sand
  • Clay
  • Ice
  • Ash
  • Pebbles
Pica - Eating non-food items
Stomach content of someone who had Pica disorder

What Are The Signs Of Pica?

  • Indigestion
  • Constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Behavioral problems
  • Poor nutrition
  • Nausea
  • Lack of appetite
  • Bloating

Diagnosing Pica:

There is no single test that can help doctors find out if you or your loved ones have the disorder.

But a detailed family history and tests for nutrient/mineral deficiencies can help give the doctor a clearer view of the situation.

In addition, doctors may ask for X-rays to find out what’s inside the person’s stomach and intestines. On the other hand, the blood tests check for anemia, toxins, and other harmful substances.

Risks Associated With Pica:

  • Pica is said to occur with other mental health disorders like autism spectrum disorder, intellectual disability, and schizophrenia (4).
  • Some people develop habits that require clinical care, like those who eat needles or light bulbs.
  • Eating paint can cause lead poisoning that may result in brain damage and learning disabilities.
  • Ingesting some non-food items like pebbles and sand can cause blockages in the digestive tract.
  • Sharp or hard objects can cause tears in the intestines.
  • Eating dirt can cause infections due to bacteria or parasites, which may cause liver or kidney damage.

Cases Of Pica Found Around The World:

BBC Life Clinic did an episode on Brand Naggita, a Ugandan struggling with Pica.

The video shows her eating a mineral-rich clay found near her village in Uganda. She had also admitted to eating rocks for several months and claims that doing so helps to deal with nausea.

Brenda Naggita
Pregnant woman, Brenda Naggita, eats rocks to combat her nausea

According to the tests conducted by her doctors, vitamin or nutrient deficiencies are not the source of her Pica disorder. Even so, eating rocks is also not part of the norm for her community/society.

In the interview with BBC, she admitted to experiencing constipation and that the doctors having warned her of the health risks. But at the time of the filming of her interview, she had not managed to break off her rock-eating Pica disorder.

In addition to Brenda Naggita, there are many men, women, and children struggling with Pica around the world.

Pica Statistics:

  • 10-33% of institutionalized children with mental disorders were found to have the disorder (5).
  • Two studies have found that 21.8% and 25.8% of those with intellectual disabilities had the disorder (6, 7).
  • Anemia, poor education, and low socioeconomic backgrounds are factors associated with Pica (8).
  • 8%, 23%, and 17.5% of pregnant women reported having Pica in Africa, the Americas, and Eurasia, respectively (9).
  • A study published in the Handbook Of Clinical Child Psychology shows 4-26% of institutionalized people suffering from Pica (10).
  • 10-30% of children aged between 1 and 6 are also said to develop Pica (11).

How To Treat Pica Disorder?

Pica Treatment
It is possible to treat Pica disorder using positive reinforcement and the right vitamin supplements.

A common cause of this disorder is due to poor nutrition, and the body getting insufficient amounts of specific minerals or nutrients.

Consequently, doctors will often prescribe nutrition supplements to combat the deficiency (12).

In fact, positive reinforcement is effective at conditioning those affected on what they should or shouldn’t be eating.

As for the effectiveness of the treatments, they vary. Many cases of Pica also resolve themselves in a few months while others persist for several years, especially with those with developmental disabilities.
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Jessica J
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Written & Reviewed by Jessica J, M. D. Dermatology.

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