It’s not totally unusual to crave certain smells or wonder what a non-edible item tastes like.
But if you’re feeding on non-food substances, you may be suffering from pica syndrome.
Pica is a feeding disorder in which someone eats non-edible items that have no nutritional value. Most commonly, this includes paper, soap, paint, chalk or ice.
It’s not uncommon to fancy eating some ice – and this usually signifies you’re lacking in iron. But if you’re drawn to eating these sort of items, you may be given the diagnosis.
To receive a diagnosis of pica, the behaviour must be present for at least one month, according to Beat.
A pica diagnosis is not given if eating something is part of a cultural practice, or if is developmentally inappropriate – for example, it’s generally not diagnosed in children under the age of two. It is common for babies to put objects in their mouths which can lead to them accidentally eating substances that aren’t meant to be eaten.
In fact, often pica is not revealed until medical problems happen, such as metal toxicity, cracked teeth, or infections.
Pica affects people of all genders and ages, though it is most likely to first appear in children, and can occur alongside other illnesses such as eating disorders.
It’s can also affect people with other conditions associated with impaired functioning, such as an intellectual disability, autism and schizophrenia.
According to The National Eating Disorders Association, iron-deficiency anaemia and malnutrition are two of the most common causes of pica, followed by pregnancy.
In these people, pica is a sign that the body is trying to correct a significant nutrient deficiency.
Often, treating these issues with medication or vitamins resolves the problem.
However, pica can be hard to diagnose – because it’s often hidden.
People with the disorder don’t usually avoid other food, so they’ll still be getting all the nutrients they need, and nobody would suspect a thing.
But some non-food items they consume can be incredibly dangerous, especially if eaten in large amounts.
If you are worried that you or someone you love has pica, there are some signs to look out for.
Symptoms include craving to consume substances that aren’t supposed to be eaten, actually eating those things and developing a physical illness as a result of eating harmful substances.
Beat says: ‘The reasons that people develop pica are not yet clear, although several scientists have linked it to the nervous system, and have understood it as a learned behaviour or coping mechanism.
‘In some cases, people with pica have been found to be deficient in certain minerals or vitamins, but this is often not the case. The percentage of people who have it is not yet known, as different researchers may use different definitions of pica, leading to some confusion.’
If you or a loved one are suffering from the syndrome, it is important that you go to the doctor ASAP, and don’t wait until something goes medically wrong.
The first line of treatment will generally involve testing for mineral or nutrient deficiencies and correcting those.
The National Eating Disorders Association states: ‘In many cases, concerning eating behaviors disappear as deficiencies are corrected. If the behaviours aren’t caused by malnutrition or don’t stop after nutritional treatment, a variety of behavioral interventions are available.
‘Scientists in the autism community have developed several different effective interventions, including redirecting the person’s attention away from the desired object and rewarding them for discarding or setting down the non-food item.’
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