What Are The Side-Affects Of Pica?

Categories:General Health
Farhan Mirajkar

You Eat What?!
    Think an insatiable yen for potato chips is hard to live with? Imagine craving chalk, paper, even ashes. Inside the strange world of the dietary disorder known as pica.
    Every week, there’s a meal waiting inside Caitlin Woodruff’s mailbox. She’s not mail ordering fruit baskets or Maine lobsters. This treat is stuffed inside Woodruff’s  copy of The New Yorker.
    “I eat  paper,” says the 35-years-old San Francisco consumer-electronics  marketer. “I eat one New Yorker subscription card a week. I like the white parts without ink the best. I call it the white meat. Mmm.”
    Most people would find Woodruff’s taste for card stock bizarre, but those driven by similar strange cravings know where she’s coming form. Woodruff has a disorder called pica, the compulsion to eat nonfood products like dirt, clay or hair.
   Because many people are ashamed of their habit, solid numbers are hard to come by, but researchers are discovering that  pica may be more prevalent than once thought according to one study in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, and affects more (mostly young) women than men.

A curious compulsion
    Woodruff’s passion for paper is typical of pica suffers, who also yearn for ice, cornstarch or chalk. (Pica is the Latin word for “magpie,” a bird known for its odd eating habits.)  Some people eat even less palatable things, such as cigarette buttes, sponges and rocks. Most have a hankering for one item, as does Lenna Martyak, a 31-year-old medical resident in Los Abgeles, who hungered for chalk throughout high school. “I was very aware that it was white chalk I needed,” she says.
 In some instances, pica starts in childhood. Woodruff’s desire for paper began when she learned to read. “I’d tear off the corners of pages and eat them,” she says. Eventually, she moved on to magazines, “My family would joke, Caitlin got the TV Guide again you can’t tell what’s on television tonight.”
    Woodruff is an anomaly in that, unlike most people known to have pica, she doesn’t live in a rural or poor area. Among women in these groups, myths, about dirt and clay improving fertility persist, which may encourage the behavior. Nor did  Woodruff’s disorder worsen during a pregnancy. (Pregnancy often triggers pica.) One study of expectant mothers in groups at high risk for pica found that 38 per cents had the disorder. Researchers suspect there’s also a genetic predisposition: Statistics show women who have a sister or aunt with the disorder are more at risk of developing it themselves.

An elusive cause
    The explanations for pica are as numerous and varied as the substances victims long for. The leading idea is that pica is set off by a  mineral deficiency. Heath issues that affect women pregnancy, breast feeding, menstruation can sap the body of nutrients such as iron and zinc. Research suggests that up to 50 per cent of sufferers don’t get enough iron and that supplements may relieve cravings. Some experts think this is the reason people with Crohn’s disease are also at risk; the chronic inflammatory bowel condition causes victims to lose blood (and nutrients). A flaw in this theory, however, is that the substances these individuals desire usually do not contain the needed nutrients. 
    Supplements don’t always relieve the urges, either. This fact has led to other theories, such as that pica is behaviorally based, possibly form of obsessive compulsive disorder. Those affected say they’re unaware of what they’re doing, and they’re caompelled by a strong psychological need. Martyak says eating chalk wasn’t about the flavor. “It was bland,” she says. “I feel better because I’d given into the craving.”
    Perhaps most strange is the extremely small group of people who way be purposefully consuming indigestible things, which has led some experts to believe  the condition could be linked to eating disorders. These individuals may consume wood or pebbles to feel full without gaining weight, explains. Dr. Rose, an associate residency director at the North Oakland Medical Centers in Pontiac, Michigan. That’s part of the motivation for Sara, a 20-year-old homemaker in Orlando, Florida. “I don’t eat a lot of food,” says Sara, who at 5 feet 5 inches weighs less than 100 pounds. And just tasting things like baking soda or chalk can settle the food craving yet keep my stomach empty so I lose weight.”
    In most cases, however, pica results in weight gain. Pica substances can be very high in calories: Cornstarch has 480 per cup. What’s more, those with the condition are also at risk for malnutrition because they consume dirt or chalk in place of healthy, nutrient rich foods, Dr. Rose says.

Secrecy and shame

   Most people who suffer from pica never seek help. But while eating small  amounts of digestible, nontoxic substances such as chalk or paper is mostly harmless, pica is most individuals with pica don’t see it as a problem.” Dr. Rose says. The habit is potentially  deadly, however. “I also eat cigarette ashes and dirt,” Sara admits.
   Carcinogens in  cigarettes could increase the risk for cervical and colon cancers when ingested. Soil is loaded with pesticides and parasites, which can be toxic, while eating hair may case blockages in the intestines or bowels, says Jeff Hampl, PhD.,  a dietitian in Mesa. Arizona, who have pica. Even less harmful substances can be risky: people can suffer heartburn and indigestion form substances such as dust or break their teeth  chewing on pebbles.
   Still, for many, one of the biggest side effects is emotional. Until now. Sara has kept her pica a secret. “I’m so ashamed,” she says.
“I’m like a child sneaking batter from the bowl when no one’s looking.” It’s not surprising that more than 90 per cent of sufferers go undiagnosed.
   Some of the others just get lucky; they’re found out or cured accidentally, like Martyak, whose urge for chalk eased when she was treated for iron-deficiency anemia related to Crohn’s.
   “Doctors think to ask about it when people have other complications, like lead poisoning from eating paint.”  Says Dr. Rose who has learned  to play detective, gently pressing patients to confide in him. “I start out  asking about eating ice because people will admit to that,” he says. It’s worth telling you physician if you eat odd items, Dr. Rose adds, because pica can be  treated. Doctors typically suggest nutritional supplements and behavior therapy. In severe cases, antidepressants such  as Prozac may be recommended to rectify an imbalance in brain chemicals, which in turn helps relieve cravings.
   The disorder may also go away on its own, as it often does for pregnant women after they’ve given birth and for some who developed the condition in childhood. Woodruff used  to eat up to a page a day, but “I don’t do it as much anymore,” she reports.
“I’m horrified of ruining books.” But  she isn’t giving up her New York subscription just yet.



  1. thanzo
    August 3, 2009 at 10:35 am

    I eat dirt ,when I was pregnant I did not crave it at all,I am 29 ,been doing itsince I was 12, it atarted with chalks,paper and baby powder,Doctors have prescribed all sorts of supplements but they are not helping,I really want to stop.I google about it almost everyday hoping for a solution.

  2. admin
    August 3, 2009 at 12:14 pm

    You need to talk to your doctor about how you feel after taking his prescribed supplements. He will help you out with something else that will work. Sometimes you need to take medicines for a long period in order for them to work. Wishing you a speedy recovery.

  3. Anonymous
    August 6, 2009 at 10:01 am

    For over 5 years I have suffered Pica cravings for sponge and cushion stuffing. I haven’t been to the doctor’s as I’m too embarassed and I’m worried that they won’t take me seriously…
    Recently these cravings have intensified in both strength and frequency, it’s like needing a drink after a long run, I just have to have them. If I can’t get them I’ll eat scraps of material or even small pieces of scouring pads- which is definitely not good for me- but I can’t stop myself.
    I’m really worried that I’m being harmed in some way, but I don’t know how to stop, what worries me most though is why I do it, as I have absolutely no idea where the cravings come from- and why it’s spongy substances that I crave so much…

  4. admin
    August 6, 2009 at 10:59 am

    By all means do your best do visit a doctor. Dont feel embarassed about it. This condition is faced by many people and can be treated by the right doctor. Generally the reason for such cravings is due to deficiency of certain nutrients in your body. But you doctor will be the best person to diagnose the cause in your specific case.
    Do not shy away from seeing the doctor, its their duty to make the patient feel at ease and keep your condition confidential. Hope this helps

  5. Rasheena
    December 7, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    i eat cement chalk tile mix and soft stones and anything of that consistency for some strange reason i like the chalky taste.  I am also addicted to eating ice i wake all hours of the morning and stand infront of the freezer just eat ice cube after ice cube. At first i would spit out the tile mix of chalk after chewing it because i just liked that taste but in the past few months i have now been actually swallowing it.  I feel embarassed to tell the doctor and i find that i am constipated quite alot i have been eating these kinds of substances for five years now, my mother is anaemic so i dont know if the lack of iron is my reason for this right now im writing this and i am eating hardened concrete i just crave this stuff and when im finish i always eat tons of ice….

  6. admin
    December 8, 2009 at 5:18 pm

    Sorry to hear that Rasheena but the best advise we can give is to see a doctor. Dont feel embarassed. It is the work of doctors to treat such patients and having this sickness is just like any other sickness out there that can be treated with the help of doctors.

  7. anon
    December 16, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    hey ive suffered from pica since i was 2-3 years old, im now 19, only diagnosed when i was 17, now i am to be wed next year, i of course is looking forward for trying for a baby with my soon to be husband, but we worried (my boyfriend is aware that im a pica sufferer) that because i suffer from pica that it will affect my fertility, please can someone put our mind at ease, as im to scared and humiliated to go to my GP, Thankyou.

  8. admin
    December 31, 2009 at 1:54 pm

    Dont feel afraid to go to your General Practitioner. That is what will help you come out of this disease. Anyone of us can suffer this disease. The important thing is to approach a good doctor and get it treated as soon as possible.

    Take Care of yourself,


  9. ashley
    January 27, 2010 at 3:55 am

    I’m 26 weeks pregnant with my third child and I crave mortar. During my first pregnancy, with twin boys, I would suck and gnaw on pieces I had chipped away from the fire place. After I gave birth, the cravings stopped. I thought it was due to a lack of vitamins with the twins. But now I’m pregnant for the second time and the craving has started again. I can deter the craving by eating a lot of ice. I’m just worried that it will affect me in the long run.

  10. admin
    January 27, 2010 at 8:17 am

    hi Ashley,

    Sorry to hear about the mortar cravings. Did you consult with your gynecologist about the same?



    iiBc.Com Support.

  11. R.
    February 6, 2010 at 2:36 am

    i have been eating paper for 8 years now. it started when i was little and my brother and i both used to do it. he grew out of it, but i didnt. Now i am 18. My family knew about my habit, but i dont think that they know i still do it. I have never told anyone about my habit.
    It has given me constipation on a few occasions over the past 8 years, but now i can control my BM and stay regular.
    I have recently been diagnosed with anemia. now i am almost certain that is related to my pica (undiagnosed). i am worried that i may have mercury poisoning from the paper though. I experience some numbness and tingling in my feet and fingers recently.
    I cant confide in my doctor as he is not very easy to talk to, but im going to see a haematologist (blood specialist or whatever the correct name is) and would rather confide in them.

  12. admin
    February 19, 2010 at 11:53 am

    hi R,

    Please see a doctor you are comfortable with. Dont  be disheartened, your condition will definately be cured.



    iiBc.Com Support.

  13. ashley
    April 22, 2010 at 7:00 pm

    No I haven’t told my gyno cause I’m kinda scared to. When I was pregnant with the twins my mom found out and made fun of me for it. I only have 16 days left of this pregnancy and if I’m still craving morter I will tell someone. I’m hoping it will go away.

  14. admin
    April 23, 2010 at 8:39 am


    Gynos are doctors and they are professionals, dont feel shy to talk to them. They will help you getting rid of this craving. Seek help from your doctor and it will definately go away. Dont worry much and take care of yourself.

    Stacy Smith.

    iiBc.Com Support.

  15. Diva
    May 23, 2010 at 10:58 am

    Is eating uncooked (raw) rice bas for health?? I am addicted to this habit right from my age of 14. After medical prescriptions stopped it for almost 6 years, but now again i am into ths habit. Can u please help me get out of this?? what can this habit lead to health wise??

  16. admin
    May 23, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    hi Diva,

     Working with your medical professional to get to the root of the illness is important. If you dont feel the doctor which you have been visiting in the past is good enough, look for someone better but medical intervention is essential for analyzing the cause and getting rid of it permanently.

    Stacy Smith,
    iiBc.Com Support.

  17. Janice
    July 24, 2010 at 2:30 am

    My six year old has been eating things since she was little.  She chews her nails and cuticles, she peals paint of the walls, eats paper, and fuzz balls off the floor.  The doctor tested her iron levels and they were fine.  Said it was maybe a stage.  My husband and I are always worried that she will eat something that will make her very ill.  We continuously remind her not to put things in her mouth and have to watch her constantly to make sure she doesn't.  When we catch her, she doesn't even seem to realize that she is doing it, or else she has become ashamed of it and just denies it.  I am worried and so is my husband.  As a child I suffered from anxiety and OCD, I think that she may be duing this as a result of something similiar.  I just don't know how to get her the help she needs.

  18. September 23, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    my friend arien likes to eat my hair and books and other geto things what should i do.

  19. Brandy
    October 7, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    My husband chews newspaper every day, all day long. He does not swallow it, he spits it out. He has a lot of problems with constipation, do you think perhaps the paper is the reason? Im afraid that the ink from the paper will harm him. He is ashamed of talking to the doctor about this problem. He would have a duck if he found out i were telling now….

  20. Caitlyn
    November 25, 2010 at 5:41 am

    I've been eating flour for about a year now. i'm 16, please help! I eat it at least 4 times a day

  21. Pam
    February 1, 2011 at 4:43 am

    I initially started to chew on mortar from fireplaces at age 18. It was right after my mother died. I moved in with my husband and they had built a rock wall with mortar that was was easily broken and chewed. I never swallow the m0rtar. I have tried clay and did not like the taste. My teeth look horrible now. will cost about $20,00 to fix the damage sililiar to meth mouth. (I have never done meth of illicit drugs in m life) I assume that the chemicals that I ingested eroded my teeth. I am williing to stop thi. I would to love if there is Dentist who woould be willing to do pro bono, I realize this ma be difficult. I don’t smile in pictures, I hate speaking to thers and an I am disgusted with myself.

  22. melissa
    March 17, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    i eat ice constantly i have been doing it for a little over a year now i went to the doctor because i wasnt feeling well he told me that i ate so much ice i actually froze the inside of my stomach. That was about 6 months ago it has only got worse sense but i have never went to the doctor again because i am just now learning about pica and i feel like nobody takes me seriously when i say im worried about it they juts laugh and say that im weird and my mother just says that i am a hypocondriact and i dont need to go to the doctor. i really feel like a need help but i dont want my doctor to think that im crazy to. i know its just ice and shouldnt have that much harm on me but i still want to stop it affects my life every day because i eat it allllllllllllllll day long i am 18 and afraid i will never be able to stop

  23. Rachel
    March 23, 2011 at 11:16 pm

    I've constantly eating paper, plastic, wax and wood (off pencils mostly) since I was probably about 7 (I'm 20 now), well I think it might have been earlier but that's the earliest recollection I've had of it. I used to eat hair too when I was younger but I've not done that for several years.
    I'm not entirely sure what it is I don't know if it classes as Pica or not or its just a nervous habit or bordem as I bite my nails too but I can't seem to stop doing it. I don't crave it like I do with normal food (the only worrying food substance I often crave is salt) sometimes it's and automatic reaction and sometimes it does seem my mind is telling me to eat it
    I'm not sure whether its worth asking the doctor about it or how to bring it up. My boyfriend says he thinks it's just a normal thing as he's known other people that tend to chew paper, my mother on the other hand is convinced I'm going to end up with some kind of cancer. What does everyone else think?

  24. Patrick
    April 30, 2011 at 2:07 am

    Good to know I'm not alone with this problem. I seem to have cravings for pieces of concrete and the dust from it, mortar, sand and things of that nature but mainly concrete. This I would collect from plastic weights I use for lifting. Little pebbles or simply the dust I would consume. It's been a few months since this has started and I think I'm seeing a neurological effect now (eye twitch). 
    Got an appointment with the doctor soon. Haven't consumed anything for the past three weeks or so. I'm hoping I don't develop some kind of cancer or irreversible neurological effect from it all.

  25. woody
    May 15, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    i had a reaally worse habit of eating soil and sand or cement……. the smell of all these stuff when it is mixed with water has the biggest crave for me n i cnt cntrol myself….n do u thnk dat it will affect my health.????n wat should i do???m 21 years old  girl

  26. MissGirl
    August 28, 2011 at 7:04 pm

    I have been eating the walls in my house since I turned twelve now i'm 22. It start out slow but now everytime i see it I just want to have that crunchiness in my mouth. Nothing else has that type of taste too it for me.It is so bad that i have ate almost the complete bottom half of one of the floors in my house. Now since I have moved too another place I still want it and i just feel the texture of it in my mouth and it just feels like i need one peice. I have found a substitute so the college I go to now I go into a friend of my dorm where they have the sitting room for everyone to sit in and I just get the big thing of chalk and I go back to my room eat it. It's not as good as the walls in my house but it a good substitute. I know i need help but I don't have any form of medicare or insurance because I can't afford it. I would like to know some that can help me stop cause my family isn't rich and i'm going to try to fix the wall in my mom's house but I need to stop eating walls and chalk.  I know it  but it's like an addiction for me that  I can't end. I got the chalk i'm eating on now maybe 4 days ago and i have been trying to spread it  but it's almost gone already. Hopefully i'll find another white peice soon cause my craving are getting bad and i am thinking of maybe just buying the big peices myself that way when I go home I will not have to eat the walls of my house anymore. I hope I can one day stop by just by slowly bring myself off of it. Hopefully or find a supplement or something.

  27. John
    November 4, 2011 at 10:34 pm

    I chew on paper towel but do not eat them. So I don't have pica per the definition. I do eat boogers sometimes, but secretly…..thoughts?

  28. mac
    December 21, 2011 at 9:24 am

    hi, i've been eating paper for some time now. college ruled, envelopes (the glue on them is really good), TP when i'm in the bathroom, the paper straws come in, and index cards when i can get them. after reading a lot of different accounts of people with pica, i have to say that i don't think it's an eating disorder in the true sense. there seems to be a fixation with TEXTURE driving these impulses in an overwhelming majority of cases. until recently, i was unaware of pica. i always knew it was weird to eat paper, but it always made sense as a sort of stress-relief. The first time i ate paper was when i was a kid doing homework and stressing out about school. i went on to study english in college, and stress and paper were both in abundance. I think pica is less of an eating disorder and more similar to an ORAL FIXATION or involuntary stress response like teeth grinding or nail biting. But compulsively eating paper also resembles OCD for me anyways. Now i cant leave the restroom without eating at least one square of TP. It's chewing it that's enjoyable though, and sometimes i spit it out instead of swallowing it. Chalky, spongey, or gritty papery textures reappear as desirable to those with pica. i think somewhere in texture is the root of the addiction. I think pica is a fascinating thing really, and is just one of many stress responses to the self-domestication of the human species. Animals chew on weird things in captivity all the time, why wouldn't people?

  29. January 12, 2012 at 4:48 am

    Hi!  I'm Kathy, 45 yrs. old, and I eat cement mortar.  I crave it most whenever I have my period.  I truly can't help myself.  I now understand how hardcore drug addicts feel.  I will do just about anything to get it.  When I finally do get it in my mouth, it's like Nirvana.  I'm just wild with the craving and can't get enough.  Recently, I found a hardware/home improvement store that will deliver bags of mix to my house.  I realize that this is weird behavior, as my friends and relatives that I've tried to share this with have all told me.  So, I can't talk to them.  Due to multiple serious health problems, I've discussed this quite a few of my doctors.  They look at me like I'm a total wack-job, and offer no advice for relief.  Well, 1 said to try eating ice.  That did not work because it's not my mortar!  Also, now my teeth are so trashed I can't eat things that are cold.  If this stupid craving would go away, I'd be able to stop.  So I guess for now, I'll just sit and wait for my next delivery, salivating the entire time.  Are there doctors that might specialize in disorders like PICA? 

  30. January 13, 2012 at 11:01 am

    What happens if we eat clay?what are the body organs affected if we eat clay?

  31. January 13, 2012 at 11:02 am

    Our human body becomes very thin if we eat slate pencils,chalk, limestone,vibhuthi,clay? 

  32. January 13, 2012 at 11:03 am

    loss of appetite will occur if we eat slate pencils,chalk, limestone,vibhuthi,clay? 

  33. Belinda
    February 13, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    I am happy I finally understand what I was going through when I was younger. As young as 3years old, I remember  craving and eating what is known in Cameroon as "calabar chalk". Its a type of rock dug deep from the ground. Similar to clay but taste different. As i also ate clay in my later years. As I grew up, this craving was so huge that I would exchange my dolls for just a small piece of it. I remember being severely being beaten on that ocassion. My mum couldn't not understand. I was practically addicted to the point that, I ate chalk, white powder, mud and clay, and would sometimes stand under to smell the earth. This continued till I was about 17. And then it all suddenly went away. I could pass by calabar chalk without a second glance. My mum had a party for me on that ocassion. Lol.
    Unfortunately, its all back now as I am currently 34weeks pregnant with twins, and I recall crying over the phone, begging my sister to post some calabar chalk to me from london (i live in newcastle). It was like I was going to die. She did, and I try to control the way I eat it, maybe because I am now mature (24) and I no longer crave it as I used to.
    Right now I am currently taking medications for hypercalcaemia (high blood calcium) a condition I have had for 2years now and I always wonder if it is as a result of the rock i ate for 14years.

  34. Tanya
    April 24, 2012 at 4:53 pm

    I;m 20 and I've had pica for more than 10yrs. I used to see a doctor about it when i was little but i always ended up eating clay, cement, mud, stones anything that i could crunch with my teeth. I've also had a phase where i used to eat paper. I'm anemic and I've taken medication for it too. But still at square one. I also suffer from phases of insomnia. It all seems related but the problem is if  I tell a doctor about it he looks at me like I'm crazy and starts giving me a lecture, its terrible.

  35. Twyla Pumroy, MSW
    July 5, 2014 at 4:53 pm

    Hi,  this is a  very painful thread to read!  I am reading about feelings of shame and loss of control and inability to manage Pica emotionally. I am reading about extreme isolation and solo struggling to try to manage Pica AND make sure no one knows about the behaviors.  I'm going to advocate therapy for those who suffer from Pica.  It is my belief Pica,  shrouded in shame as it is, misunderstood at best,  can be managed best with the help of a trusted clinician (therapist, counselor etc..) and I believe finding  a therapist with who fosters feelings of comfort and trust  that some of the shame will be reduced. With proper support those who are reluctant to even TELL their family physician will finally be able to bring Pica into the open.  (And once in the open perhaps help will follow.)

    The posts above indicate (generally) that some who have Pica consider their cravings to be unseemly conduct when it is a disorder outlined in the DSM V.  Indeed I think I am reading that Pica is CONTROLLING some of the people who posted above, or at least they feel controlled by the compulsion to eat non-food items.  Clearly medical (physician and/ or psychiatric) intervention is necessary – especially when Pica sufferers crave and eat things that may be harmful to them; but in every post I feel I am "hearing" a need to hide the behaviors as well as a compelling, unquenchable desire to eat non-food items. A therapist who empowers clients will help with the shame of revealing Pica and essentially help those with Pica to be able to reveal essential information with physicians.

    Most disturbing to me is the post telling of attempting to get help but having physicians look at her as if she is a "wack-job"  when she did reach for help.  Possibly a therapist, if well trained, will KNOW about Pica and be able to find resources for the person who is suffering. The first step must be finding someone who understands Pica – and that person is more likely to be able to direct the sufferer to a qualified source of intervention and help!  Pica is reputedly very under-reported. However, even though the information we have on Pica is changing and very incomplete there ARE going to be physicians who have experience with treating those with Pica.  I truly believe for many people the first step is going to be seeing a therapist who can EMPOWER the Pica sufferer to actually disclose the behaviors and seek appropriate treatment in the medical arena.

    Juggling other stress, daily life, the need for secrecy and Pica must be EXHAUSTING. Thus, I will repeat – I advocate therapy – with a therapist you trust and who empowers you.  It really is important to garner courage and seek a therapist who feels safe and empathetic.  I wish you the best.

Leave a Reply