Eating disorder pica: eating inedible things

The eating disorder pica means that someone has a compulsive need to eat inedible things, such as stones, wood, hair or unprocessed food. The name pica comes from the magpie because this bird also eats almost everything. Small children often have the need to put everything in their mouths, but it is also seen in pregnant women, people with mental retardation and people living in poverty. This behavior is not always without danger and can lead to serious health problems.

What it is

Pica is a relatively unknown eating disorder in which there is a craving for eating inedible things. Pica occurs when you eat foreign objects for more than one month. There is no aversion to eating normal food. Small children sometimes have the tendency to put things in their mouths. It is therefore referred to as pica when the child is older than three years old. The name pica is named after the Latin name of the magpie ( pica pica ), because this bird eats almost anything. Eating foreign objects can be dangerous because they can cause constipation, intestinal perforations or poisoning.

What is eaten?

Someone with pica can eat anything, for example: sand, clay, stones, hair, wool, paper, coins, buttons, wood chips, cigarette ash, cigarette butts, feces, washing powder or plastic. But it can also be unprocessed foods, such as: raw eggs, raw potatoes, ice cream, salt, sugar and uncooked macaroni or rice. Some things are quite harmless when they enter the body and do not cause any problems. But it can also be very dangerous, like eating glass. This can lead to life-threatening internal injuries.


It can be caused by a developmental disorder or a nutritional deficiency. An increased risk of developing pica is seen in people who live in poverty, have been neglected, lack parental authority and have delayed development. Pregnant women are also extra sensitive to it. This may be due to a deficiency, but stress may also be the cause. Pica is more common in developing countries than in our country. If someone is deficient in iron, they may develop a need to eat iron-rich soils. Only it will not help to correct the iron deficiency.

Pica is also sometimes seen in various forms of mental retardation or brain damage. It can occur in all walks of life and at all ages. Culture and malnutrition can play a role in this. In developing countries, clay is sometimes eaten because there is no food. Sometimes you see pica in people who are on a strict diet. To satisfy hunger they will eat objects. Pica can also occur in animals, especially dogs.

In children

It is part of a child’s development to put all kinds of things in their mouths. This is mainly seen in children around the age of one year. Even after this, a child will sometimes put objects in their mouth. There are relatively many children with pica, but they usually grow out of it on their own. The behavior often occurs when there is another disorder, such as autism or another intellectual disability. Between 10 and 30 percent of children between the ages of 1 and 6 eat foreign objects.

Source: Big Apple, Pixabay

Risks to health

Eating some things is relatively harmless, but it can also be very dangerous. Sometimes the object comes out undigested through the feces. It can cause major problems if a blockage occurs somewhere, for example due to a clump of hair in the intestines. Objects can also cause damage to the gastrointestinal tract, infection or poisoning. For example, there was once a man in France who had to have surgery on his stomach because he had given up 5.5 kilos of coins. The weight of the coins had caused the man’s stomach to sink to his hips, meaning he could no longer eat. Unfortunately he did not survive this. Hair, wool and metal objects can easily lead to a blockage in the stomach.

There are also people who eat feces. This can cause them to become infected with disease-causing microorganisms such as bacteria. This includes eating contaminated soil, raw food and plants (injected with insecticides). Eating paint chips can lead to lead poisoning. In the Netherlands, paint is no longer allowed to contain lead. Soils may be contaminated with poison, worms or heavy metals. There are even people who eat magnets. If this comes into contact with another magnet or piece of steel, a piece of intestine can be pinched off. Eating snow and ice usually causes diarrhea.


Since eating foreign objects is undesirable, it must be treated. There is often an underlying problem of a mental nature. This will be addressed first and then something will be done about the abnormal eating amount. If there is a nutritional deficiency such as a lack of iron, nutritional supplements can be given. The need to eat metal can therefore disappear. For example, if someone has been eating hair for years, this may be such an ingrained habit that it is difficult to break. Abnormal eating behavior must be treated with behavioral therapy, for example aversion therapy. Sometimes this can be supported with medication.

The most commonly used method in children is behavioral therapy. Good behavior is rewarded and pica behavior is punished. It is assumed that eating foreign objects has been learned and can therefore be unlearned. It can be very difficult to unlearn this behavior. Pica is seen as both a behavioral disorder and an eating disorder.