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Published On: Feb 12, 2024|Categories: Eating Disorder Information|

What is pica?

Pica is an eating disorder that is characterized by eating nonfood, nonnutritive substances for one month or longer. This eating disorder is found most commonly in young children as well as pregnant people. Pica is also observed in those who have co-occurring mental disorders such as schizophrenia, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). It can only be diagnosed if the behaviors are outside of the normative social practices and developmental stage of the individual; for example, children under the age of two are not eligible for a pica diagnosis, as it is developmentally normal behavior to place nonfood items in their mouth as a means of exploring their environment. Culturally, pica cannot be diagnosed if the consumption of nonfood substances correlates with an accepted social practice.

The main indicator of pica eating disorder is compulsive consumption of items or substances that are not digestible by humans. These may include but are not limited to:

  • Chalk
  • Dirt
  • Laundry detergent 
  • Small toys or objects
  • Paper
  • Coffee grounds
  • Hair 
  • Baby powder
  • Eggshells 
  • Feces

Eating these substances can have grave consequences including toxicity, obstruction or penetration of the stomach and intestines, parasitic infestation and more.

Causes of pica

Pica is a complex disorder and may have various root causes, including nutritional deficiencies, co-occurring psychological disorders, and environmental factors. A team of professionals is generally consulted to properly diagnose the situation and create a plan for treatment and recovery. 

This process may include medical tests to detect unmet nutritional needs in the body which could be causing intense cravings and driving bizarre behavior patterns. Doctors and nutritionists will devise an eating regime based on the results to correct any deficiencies and work towards alleviating the disorder. 

A psychological analysis is often required as well to determine whether any underlying mental health issues need to be addressed. If there are known psychological disorders such as Autism or OCD, therapy and treatment for these conditions will influence the treatment plan for pica. Behavioral intervention has shown to be effective for this people group, rewiring the affected person’s brain through vigilant supervision and consistent redirection when needed. 

Consideration should be made for the environmental factors that contribute to pica eating disorder. Trauma and abuse victims, as well as those who have been subject to neglect, may develop pica as a coping mechanism. Children who have been improperly attended to sometimes realize that pica behaviors naturally cause rise to their caretakers, providing them the attention that they are craving. 

How does the DSM-5 classify pica?

There has been significant controversy surrounding the classification of pica. The American Psychiatric Association developed a manual for such situations in 1952 which serves to define and classify mental health disorders, as well as standardize treatment. After several rounds of refinement, the most recent edition was published in 2013. This resource is called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5

What is a mental disorder?

The DSM-5 defines a mental disorder as, a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or development processes underlying mental functioning.” These disorders are generally known to cause disruptions in the affected person’s social, familial and/or professional lives, and will usually require treatment of some sort to achieve full resolution.

Some examples of various categories for mental health disorders in the DSM-5 are:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depressive disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive and related disorders
  • Trauma- and stressor-related disorders
  • Eating and feeding disorders
  • Gender dysphoria 
  • Personality disorders

Treatment modalities will vary greatly based on the particular disorder, its severity, age and cognition of the affected person, and the co-occurrence of multiple disorders affecting the individual.

What is an eating and feeding disorder?

Eating and feeding disorders are behavioral changes or distortions that persist in severely disrupting eating and feeding behaviors, as well as thoughts and emotions surrounding food. They can have dire consequences for people across all age groups, races, socioeconomic statuses, body types and culture groups. 

The DSM-5 delineates several categories of eating and feeding disorders, including:

  • Anorexia nervosa (AN)
  • Bulimia nervosa (BN)
  • Binge-eating disorder (BED)
  • Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID)
  • Pica
  • Rumination disorder

Approximately nine percent of Americans will report having an eating or feeding disorder in the course of their lifetime – an estimated 28.8 million people.

Is pica a mental disorder? 

While some providers posit that eating disorders are merely medical and behavioral problems, the DSM-5 has recognized eating disorders as mental health disorders since 1980. Many mental health disorders do indeed have contributing physical and medical components; however, these destructive and compulsive behaviors have psychological roots that surpass mere bodily drive. They are largely composed of a significant misperception in the mind or compulsion and are often accompanied by various secondary mental health illnesses.  

Find relief from eating disorders today 

Pica eating disorder is a serious mental disorder that necessitates adequate assessment, diagnosis and treatment from a qualified team of professionals. The good news is, there is a road to healing ahead. If you or your loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, Seeds of Hope is here for you. Contact us online today, or call 610-644-6464 to begin your journey back to health.

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