woman with pica eating disorderPica is a serious issue that has been considered as a psychological disorder. It is characterized mainly by appetite towards substances that are largely non-nutritious or healthy. This means that people suffering from pica eating disorder are eating non-food substances such as feces, chalk, hair, soil, glass, hair and many other materials. A lot of problems may appear when a person has been diagnosed with this eating disorder. It has led to many surgical emergencies especially when eating substances that can lacerate the gastrointestinal system. It can also lead to intestinal obstruction and even parasitosis.

Diagnosing eating disorders and treating pica can be quite tricky. For instance, you don’t just start eating things that are not considered food. It has been linked to other types of mental, as well as psychologic disorders. In fact, a lot of people suffering from this disorder are children with autism and other developmental disabilities. However, it is also common among adults. There are pregnant women who are known to suffer form this disease as well.

There are also times wherein the cause of pica is not just within the realm of psychiatric cases. There are certain cultures that are performing pica. For instance, African American women have been recorded eating white clay in the state of Georgia. It is also widespread in the African region.

However, there are instances wherein it could be a mineral problem that has to be addressed. However, it is important for anyone to address the problem quickly because of the many problems that might occur because of the condition ranging from lead poisoning to infections from eating soil contaminated by feces of animals.

Understanding PICA Eating Disorder

This disorder is something that has not been widely researched compared to other types of eating disorders such as binge eating disorder, bulimia, and even anorexia nervosa. Based on one study, institutionalized population has a 4% to 26% of its patients suffering from this kind of condition. However, when it comes to non-institutionalized populations, it can be challenging to find out the accurate numbers.

What experts know today is that is developed due to different reasons. There is a possibility that Pica is caused by cultural aspects. On the other hand, there is also the possibility that the person is suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness.

In order to become diagnosed with this eating disorder, it is important that the individual is showing persistent craving and eating of non-nutritive substances for at least a month. It is common that a lot of people with this condition are losing weight and may lack in the normal nutrient levels needed by the body. Suffering from malnutrition, it is a typical move to provide supplements to patients suffering from pica eating disorder food ranging from zing and iron for starters. Hemoglobin levels may also be low and may show signs of anemia.

In order to know if the person is affected, it is imperative to evaluate physical signs of the condition. Potential toxicity, blood tests, and intestinal blockages should never be disregarded by the medical professional if this is suspected in an individual. There is also a chance that infections are present due to the contamination of materials that were eaten by the individual.


Identifying someone with it is quite straightforward. Medical experts first take a closer look at the physical condition of the person who is suspected of having it. Is the person malnourished? It can cause malnutrition considering the non-food substances being substituted as food. Among the most common things that go hand in hand with malnutrition is low hemoglobin level along with low mineral level. Iron and zinc are both lacking in this scenario.

In addition to this, sometimes it is discovered because of infections and the presence of parasites within the body, especially in the gastrointestinal system. This is especially true for those who opt to eat soil and other substances that are contaminated with bacteria. X-rays and blood tests are usually done in order to determine the presence of foreign objects in a person’s gastro-intestinal system. It is also possible to check for blockages in the intestinal tract along with the possibility of lacerations. It is imperative to treat these conditions especially if it has the possibility of becoming life-threatening.

In order to determine, the medical practitioner should also conscious about taking a closer look at the possibility of mental retardation or any underlying mental illness. There is a chance that someone who is suffering from autism or schizophrenia could be suffering from this condition.

Pregnant women are also known to develop pica. Though even medical experts haven’t figured out the main reason for this, they believe that it is due to iron deficiency that made pregnant women want to eat ice which is a form of pica.


To this day, there is no exact known preventive measure that can stop the development. However, it is always a good idea to take a closer look at family history. There are incidences wherein psychiatric disorders that have led to this eating disorder can be inherited. Aside from family history, especially when already dealing with someone who has mental retardation or autism, it is important to play an active role in educating the child to what is safe and what is not safe to eat. It is crucial to explain the difference between food and non-food substances.

If you already have a family member who is suffering form this, make sure that the environment is safe. Determine the non-food substances that he or she eats. This way, you can observe and be able to keep the non-food substances away from the person affected by the condition.

It is also possible to test blood levels and for any possible problem when it comes to the person’s mineral levels especially iron and zinc. According to eating disorder experts, a lot of pregnant women crave towards having ice because of decreasing level of zinc and iron.

It is also always ideal that the psychiatric problem is addressed first. A lot of people who develop it are people who are dealing with a much serious problem such as schizophrenia.

It is also important to be aware of the different signs. There are instances wherein parents have to observe bald spots in a child’s head which could mean a fixation towards eating his or her own hair. It is also possible that the child is becoming malnourished due to the non-nutritive substances that he or she is taking.


Treating it can become a bit tricky. There are many things that should be considered in order to completely get rid of the habit. And unfortunately, it may require a long-term plan in order to cure the condition.

The first thing that doctors try to look into is the possibility of curing the conditions that have resulted from pica eating disorder. There could be lead poisoning. In case there’s lead poisoning, there will be a need to perform chelation therapy. This way, the medication then binds with the lead and is excreted naturally by the body via urine.

It is also a good idea to take a closer look at any possibility of intestinal obstruction or lacerations within the gastrointestinal system. There is a chance of even having septicemia which could be dangerous and even deadly in some instances.

There might also be instances wherein a surgery is required in order to treat intestinal obstructions that were a direct result of the eating disorder. There could even be some parts of the gastrointestinal system that has been damaged. Doctors should run a complete test in order to understand the severity of the problem especially if they are about to perform an invasive procedure on the patient.

Also, it is important to solve malnutrition. It is important to provide a meal plan that can nourish the individual suffering from the disease. In most instances, doctors check for the blood levels in order to determine which type of supplement has to be included in the diet. Typically, patients also suffer from decreased levels of zinc and iron.

It is also just as important to address the mental illness that is behind the problem. It is important to help lessen the episodes of the mental condition especially if involves psychosis in order to stop the disease. For families dealing with children and individuals with mental retardation, it is crucial that the family is involved every step of the way. It is crucial to keep the environment safe and for them to understand what has to be done. It is highly suggested that family members talk to their loved ones in order to educate them about the importance of eating the right food and staying away from potentially dangerous non-food substances.

In order to effectively the disorder, education plays a crucial role in order to help treat a person who has it. Professional help needs to be provided to the individual so they understand the importance of eating the right food and the dangers of eating non-food substances.

But of course, the success rate of treating it varies from one individual to the next. There are many factors that have to be considered. For one, is there an underlying condition that has to be addressed first? Often times, it takes months or even years in order to completely eradicate the habit. It is important that the family members and medical practitioners are also aware of the non-food substances that are usually consumed by the individual in order to ensure how to control the environment.


pica eating disorder patient

Rehabilitation and eating disorder treatment can be a bit difficult and may take several months. There are also instances like in pregnant women that it can simply be cured by fixing the mineral levels of the body and waiting for the body’s hormonal level to normalize. However, it is also important to note that pica eating disorder rehab won’t be the same for everyone. The severity of the problem may differ due to the different non-food substances that a person might be consuming.

Primarily, it is important to assess the health of the person. It is quite common that people with pica eating disorder are usually malnourished. They are typically underweight and may even suffer from low levels of hemoglobin. In this case, it is important for them to receive highly nutritious meals. Apart from meeting the caloric requirements, a nutritionist dealing with a patient with this eating disorder also usually includes high protein meals in order to help the body fight potential infections that have been brought by the eating disorder.

In case the patient has been required to have surgery due to the effects, it is important to perform the proper post-operation rehabilitation in order to ensure that the gastrointestinal functions will become normalized. There will usually have to be a follow-up consultation with the doctor in order to know the types of food that should be taken while still recovering from surgery typically from intestinal obstruction.

A lot of patients are believed to eat non-food substances mainly due to the lack of minerals in their body. In this case, it is important for the nutritionist and doctor to take a closer look at the possibility of supplementing zinc and iron as a precaution in order to minimize the occurrences of pica eating disorder.

There are also cases that have been normalized due to culture. In these instances, the medical practitioners should pay close attention to educating not only the patient suffering from pica eating disorder but also the family members that are most likely supporting the behavior of the person.

Proper monitoring and having the right kind of environment is required in order to complete the rehab process. This way, the person can develop a habit towards eating nutritious food and completely discard the habit of eating non-food substances.


This harmful eating disorder can be a tricky scenario especially if it already involves health problems such as malnutrition and even a medical emergency that may require surgery. Solving the eating disorder may require a multidisciplinary approach given the number of problems that it could produce. It may require not only a psychiatrist but even a surgeon and a nutritionist in order to completely reverse the effects of pica eating disorder.

In addition to this, it is important to correct the belief of families especially when pica has become a trend due to cultural practices. It is important to educate the family members in order to have an environment that is suited towards the recovery of the person suffering from it.

Of course, it is also important to be conscious of the signs that may lead to the discovery of Pica Eating Disorder. Having bald spots, losing a significant amount of weight, and having a pale complexion, these are just some of the most common signs that a person is not getting the nutrition that he or she is supposed to have.

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