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Published On: Feb 6, 2024|Categories: Eating Disorder Information|

What is Pica Eating Disorder? 

The American Psychiatric Association defines pica eating disorder as an eating disorder characterized by the regular consumption of non-nutritive, non-food substances that persist for at least a month. There must be no developmental or cultural reasons behind this compulsion to give a pica diagnosis. Pica is oftentimes correlated to nutritional deficiencies, as well as various psychological disorders such as Autism Spectrum Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. It is most commonly observed in small children and people with various neurodiversities. 

Due to the complex nature of this eating disorder, a multifaceted assessment is needed to devise the best plan of action for an individual’s recovery; however, well-chosen treatment has proven to be effective in a great number of cases, particularly for people with Autism and other intellectual disabilities.

What causes pica eating disorder?

Biological factors of pica

Nutritional deficiencies often play a role in pica’s development in a person’s behavior patterns. Insufficient vitamins, minerals or proteins can leave the body desperate for satisfaction, driving the suffering person to consume substances that are not healthy for the body. For example, someone suffering from anemia, calcium or zinc deficiencies may crave chalk, clay, ice or dirt. While these substances may provide a temporary alleviation of the craving, they will not contribute to the overall health and healing of the person. 

Treatment in this case entails a thorough medical evaluation to assess the state of the person’s overall internal balance. Various testing will prove helpful in gaining a baseline understanding of what needs might be currently unmet, and what kind of supplementation could help correct the imbalance. These tests include but are not limited to: 

  • Stool tests
  • Scans or X-rays of the stomach and intestines
  • Saliva tests
  • Urine tests
  • Blood panels
  • Parasite testing

When the need is identified, the correct prescription and dosage can set the person afflicted with pica on a path to healing. 

Psychological factors of pica

Psychological disorders are sometimes observed in correlation with pica eating disorders. This is particularly seen in people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). In such cases, it is of great importance to properly and professionally treat the co-occurring mental dysfunction while seeking to ensure the person’s safety. 

Pica can be a highly dangerous disorder, as many of the substances people are drawn to are toxic and hazardous to overall well-being. For example, an Autistic person suffering from pica may compulsively seek to consume coffee grounds, paper, soap or eggshells. Bulky objects such as small toys may also provide massive hazards as they can become lodged in the stomach or intestines.

A team of medical doctors and psychotherapists should be consulted to identify and treat any unmet nutritional needs, as well as implement any necessary behavioral therapies to eliminate negative habits and help build new ones. 

Environmental factors of pica

Another one of the many potential causes of pica eating disorder  is environmental factors. Victims of trauma and abuse can also be at risk of developing pica, as there can be a dopamine release associated with compulsive, abnormal eating habits. This may be sought after as a method of coping with their environment. Pica may also be the result of severe malnutrition or starvation, in which case the immediate nutritional needs should be met before treating the disorder as such. 

It is interesting to note that pica does not just plague the human condition: it occurs in the animal kingdom as well. Primates, cats and dogs have been observed consuming non-food, non-nutritive substances. These tendencies can range from consuming grass to settle an upset stomach, to life-threatening behaviors such as eating rocks, paper, dirt, mulch and feces. This has the potential to be deadly to the animal and should be monitored closely.

Diagnosing pica eating disorder 

It is important to note that certain behaviors that may resemble pica eating disorder cannot be diagnosed as such based on a few criteria. The person presenting pica-like behaviors must not be considered to be in a developmental stage that would deem those behaviors appropriate. Specifically, it is normal for children under the age of two to explore their world by placing objects in their mouths, or even attempting to consume them. While this does need to be monitored for safety purposes, it is developmentally appropriate and would therefore not qualify as a disorder. 

Similarly, certain cultural practices involve consuming clay or dirt for ceremonial proceedings. This is considered socially appropriate in these cases and would not qualify as pica.

Get help for pica today

Pica’s eating disorder can be a very challenging behavior to overcome, but there is hope for recovery. If you think you or a loved one are suffering from pica, Seeds of Hope is here to help. Contact us online, or give us a call at 610-644-6464 to begin your healing journey today. 

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