March 30, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 94  

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Soil, paper, chalk, clay: eat me

By Brian Wong
Gazette Staff

Remember that girl in kindergarten — the one who stared at you with a delightfully wicked look in her eyes as she licked the overflowing tip of a bottle of Elmer’s all-purpose? Or how about when that same girl gave you a similarly wild stare as she uncapped a Sharpie, placed the felt tip in her mouth and proceeded to draw a bleeding black streak on her tongue?

The above childhood memory might sound kind of sexual (sorry — you can blame Freud), but there’s definitely nothing sexy about eating items that aren’t food. Sure, some other species in the animal kingdom might ingest non-food objects — including and not limited to such things as paint, soil, rocks, chalk and rust — but when humans have a craving for and feed on these things, they may be diagnosed with pica.

The word “pica” itself is derived from the Latin word for “magpie,” that pretty little bird with a deceptively monstrous appetite for anything and everything it finds. In humans, however, there are other explanations for the behaviour.

Although babies and infants normally put anything in their mouths, young children who have pica might have played copycat with a pet. Pregnant women might also engage in pica so they can make up for lack of nutrients. Clay, a calcium-rich substance, might be consumed to thwart morning sickness.

Eating clay or soil, also known as “geophagy,” is also a religious practice in areas where the dirt is believed to serve as a way to fight disease.
Others may engage in pica because they have a developmental disability or a psychiatric problem. And then there are those dieters who practice pica when they’re hungry — taste the yummy, low-calorie soil.

But one thing that should be stressed is that pica itself is not considered an eating disorder. If the practice doesn’t involve devouring toxic or contaminated substances, or cause intestinal blockage or any other medical ailment, then pica can be harmless.

Yet in other instances, some people with an eating disorder — such as anorexia — might think pica deals with their hunger. In 2001, then 10-year-old Justine Gallagher attracted media attention for having an eating disorder since age five, consuming up to 10 pieces of paper a day, as well as Q-Tip cotton.

OK, so you might’ve sampled some fingernails or sand in your more curious days, but don’t worry — to be diagnosed with pica, one has to be ingesting non-food substances for approximately a month.



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