Dirt in the Diet

Literally. Strange Addictions have strange roots.


During my medical school rotation through Obstetrics and Gynecology I once interviewed a very pleasant pregnant woman.  She revealed to me that the pregnancy was going well but asked me if it was natural that she had cravings for pickles, ice cream and dirt.  The third item on her list got my immediate attention. I was aware of the strange and common cravings that occur during pregnancy including strange food combinations but “dirt” was at that time new to me. I therefore began to ask more questions and found out that she had for the past 30 days been craving and eating clay dirt, yes, red dirt.

An urge to eat non-nutritive substances like dirt, ice and paper is a condition called pica and can occur in both men and women and in one study it was noted that eight out of ten pregnant women experience pica.

The term pica was first used by the French barber surgeon Ambrose Paré (1510 – 1590).  Paré was the physician for four kings of France.  He is considered one of the fathers of surgery and modern forensic pathology.   He used the term pica to mean “a perverted craving for substances unfit to be used as food”.  Pica is the Latin name for a bird called Magpie. This medieval bird had the habit of eating almost anything.

Pica can take the form of chewing on dirt, lead paint, glass, magnets and batteries.  Craving and chewing ice during pregnancy, is known medically as pagophagia.

It is important to note that pica with some of the above non nutritional substances may be a sign of emotional problems, such as stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, mental retardation or a developmental disorder.  Therefore a thorough medical evaluation and laboratory studies need to be done to determine the cause.  If the cause is an emotional or developmental issue, cognitive behavioral therapy may be helpful.

Lab tests were performed on my patient and she was found to be anemic, which is a common cause of pica.  Treating the anemia corrected the desire for ‘dirt’ in her diet but the desire for pickles and ice cream continued.






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