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Pica (Eating Disorder) 101 : Complications, Causes, Type, Symptoms

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Pica (Eating Disorder) 101 : Complications, Causes, Type, Symptoms

Pica(Eating Disorder)101 : Complications, Type, Symptoms & Treatment

Pica is the continued consumption of non-food substances like dirt, paint, clay, and others known to possess no nutritional value. If a child or pregnant woman is diagnosed with Pica, they must immediately be tested for anaemia, potential toxicity from substances consumed, and any intestinal blockages.

A review of the person’s eating habits may help in diagnosing Pica. The doctor usually rules out other disorders like developmental disabilities, intellectual disabilities, or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) due to consuming these non-nutritional substances. A minimum of one-month diagnosis with consumption of these substances must be made to diagnose this condition as Pica.

Complications associated with Pica


There are many associated complications as most of the eaten substances are non-food, non-nutritional and chemical substances. A few of them are:

  • Some substances like paint chips and flakes may contain many toxic substances like lead, and it can cause lead poisoning. It is extremely worrisome as lead poisoning can further hinder the child’s learning abilities and damage the brain.
  • Healthy food consumption is affected due to interest in non-food substance consumption; this can further cause nutritional deficiencies.
  • Constipation or blockage in the intestines is caused due to eating substances that cannot be digested. Particular sharp objects like metal scraps or paper clips could tear the lining of the intestines and esophagus.
  • The other reason for the complication is the entry of parasites and bacteria into the body due to the consumption of these substances. It is potent enough even to damage the liver and kidneys.
  • Other difficulties which co-exist with this eating disorder can further complicate the treatment for this disability.

Pica during Pregnancy

Pica (Eating Disorder)

The food cravings during pregnancy are unavoidable, which many women experience during their term of pregnancy. A study revealed that 68% of pregnant mothers experience cravings as the reason for hormonal changes. This can fluctuate throughout their pregnancy, causing some to become sensitive to the smell of some foods; a few others may not be able to tolerate foods they once loved to have or those they dislike being on the top of their priority.

Although these are also cravings, not harmful, though, as they revolve around edible foods. The only concern should be the type of calories and to keep a control on them to avoid excess ingestion. 

However, there is a complication like Pica, which involves non-food as well as non-nutritional substances. Some common non-food cravings are laundry soap, hair, ice chips, starch, dirt, matches, and many more.

Pica is ubiquitous among different economies and races in the world. Pica is associated chiefly with nutritional deficiencies, but it can also exist without them. The commonly noted lack is anaemia. Each non-food substance craving is related to different dietary deficiencies: ice is related to folic acid or iron deficiency anaemia.

The consumption of non-food substances also can interfere with the absorption of nutrients from foods usually consumed. For example, clay consumption hinders with the absorption of iron in the food. This often leads to the condition of anaemia, as the body lacks iron.

Types of Pica

Pica Eating Disorder image 2

The three major types of Pica are as follows:

  • Geophagia: It is the consumption of substances related to the land and earth like sand, clay, and many more.
  • Amylophagia: It is the consumption of starch and paste.
  • Pagophagia: This Pica condition is associated with the consumption of ice.

Other types are also witnessed: chalk, paint chips, antacids, ash, wax, plaster, and many more.

What Causes Pica?

Pica (Eating Disorder)

The underlying reason for the existence of Pica is still not understood, but it is believed to be due to nutritional deficiencies and physical as well as psychological aspects. This condition is more prevalent among kids, almost 1/3rd of the population between one to six years old.

The exact reason is not known, but it is attributed to people having the following conditions:

  • Problems related to development like Autism or other intellectual disabilities.
  • Problems related to mental health like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or Schizophrenia.
  • Problems related to malnutrition or hunger like: low levels of certain essential nutrients such as iron, zinc, and even calorie deficiency leading to specific cravings.
  • Stress can also lead to Pica, especially those living in poverty, who have been abused or neglected.

This condition is widespread among young children under two years of age as they don’t know what they eat. This condition is usually avoided once the child grows older unless they have any mental health issues or developmental problems.

Diagnosing and Treating of Pica


Pica can be confirmed in case the doctor notes the consumption of non-food items through the below points:

  • Consumption for a minimum of one month
  • The behavior of the child is abnormal, with some developmental issues detected.
  • If the child has developmental disabilities, they are also potential to have Pica.

Additional tests which the doctor could ask are:

  • Check for anaemia and other nutritional problems
  • Checking for lead levels in the blood
  • Stool tests to check for parasites infestation
  • Asking for X-rays or other imaging tests to find bowel and intestine-related blockage and problems.

Most doctors can help to treat this condition as they can work with parents by making non-food substances kept in unhandled places from the child.

Childproof locks and keeping them out of reach of the children are significant ways of preventing their consumption of these foods. In some cases the kids may require a psychologist as this is also due to mental health problems.

Pica Eating Disorder

How to correct Nutritional problems due to Pica?

The correction is primarily possible if it is diagnosed earlier or the selection of non-food substances is less harmful. Vitamin and Mineral supplements are usually recommended as nutritional deficiencies are one of the complications of Pica.

In addition, a multivitamin tablet could help to treat the effects caused due to Pica. For those with other mental-related issues like OCD and stress, doctors often recommend medications and behavior therapy with a psychiatrist.

How to avoid Pica during Pregnancy?

  • It is better to inform your doctor and have a regular check with prenatal health reports.
  • Continuous monitoring of iron levels throughout pregnancy, including other vital vitamins and minerals, could also help.
  • Consumption of potential non-harmful cravings like sugarless chewing gums and many more.
  • Informing the family and friends so that they could also help as maximum as possible.


Pica is one of the eating disorders which mostly strikes young children and pregnant mothers. Young children are prone as they have no idea of what they consume up to a certain age.

Pregnant women mostly have some food cravings during their term. It is safe as long as the urges are related to edible food items; the problem arises when it is associated with harmful non-food substances.

There can be an improvement in the nutritional status through multivitamin supplements. Proper monitoring of blood micronutrient parameters will ensure a safe and risk-free pregnancy.

Seeking help from family and friends could help in the longer run. Awareness about the severe health risks and other complications would also help arouse the sense of responsibility in the caretakers and the people who themselves are affected.

Emi Grace Mary Gowshika R.

Emi Grace Mary Gowshika R.

Emi is a Certified Pregnancy Nutritionist with an MSc. in Dietetics. She is well-known for her expertise on nutrition and diet.

Disclaimer: This is  article is not sponsored by any brand or company. The information contained on Target100years is provided for general and educational purposes only and must never be considered a substitute for medical advice from a qualified medical professional. All viewers of this content, especially those taking prescription medicines, are advised to consult their doctors or qualified health professionals before beginning any nutrition or lifestyle programme. Target100years does not take responsibility for possible health consequences for any person following the information in the educational content.

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