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An Under-Discussed Eating Disorder and What to Do if You Have It

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Have you ever watched a video of someone eating dirt on Instagram? Or, have you watched a video on YouTube of someone swallowing chunks of clay? If you encountered these bizarre videos, there is more than pure nonsense. It’s an eating disorder called ”pica.” This illness causes an urge to eat nonfood substances such as dirt, clay, mud, chalk, cement, and bricks.

A person carrying a handful of  brown dirt.
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The term to describe the habit of eating earth matter is called ”geophagy.” About two million years ago, this practice began for cultural and medicinal purposes. Somehow humans figured out that clay stops diarrhea. The Greek island of Lemnos and a grotto in Bethlehem were both popular sites of medicinal clay in the 20th century. 

The origins of pica are also found in animal behavior. There is the possibility that humans could have imitated certain species that ate dirt. The Amazonian parrot is known for eating clay. A toxin called quinidine sulfate is found in some of the plants that these parrots eat. When the parrots consume the clay, it prevents them from absorbing this harmful substance. Baboons also eat dirt.

Dr. Young, author of the book ”Craving Earth: Understanding Pica: The Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice, and Chalk,” states that baboons eat dirt to protect themselves from bacteria and parasites found in their bodies. 

Pica occurs all over the world, but it affects mostly women and children in developing countries. Especially, some pregnant women tend to crave earthy flavors which may place them at risk. When I was pregnant, I’ve experienced this unusual craving. I was recommended to eat edible red clay sold at the online store, Etsy.

I navigated the website clicking on my options: from Mississippi brown dirt to Georgia’s white dirt. None of these vendors guaranteed me that it was safe to ingest them. I ignored my strange craving with multivitamins until my daughter was born. But, women in the developing world find clay by their own means. 

In Kyrgyzstan, women seek their favorite clay in the Tien Shan Mountains. They firmly believe that this clay has medicinal purposes to cure anemia, and it works as a multivitamin for pregnant women. Could these women be diagnosed with pica? According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), they can’t.  

The DSM-5 indicates that a person should be diagnosed with pica if the two following criteria apply: a persistent need to eat nonfood substances for at least a month and the eating behavior is not part of cultural practices.

The latter one tells us that the women in Kyrgyzstan, due to cultural norms, shouldn’t be diagnosed with pica because they believe in the medicinal properties of clay. Nevertheless, doctors in this country don’t support this practice.

A giant orange mountain with some large pointy orange rocks on a sunny day.
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The most prominent cause of pica is iron deficiency. The National Eating Disorder Association asserts that people with this eating disorder lack essential vitamins and minerals, like iron and zinc. These minerals can be found in certain types of clay. But this pica is not limited to eating earthy substances.

The DSM-5 includes paper, soap, cloth, hair, string, wool, talcum powder, paint, and even metal as nonfood items ingested by people with this eating disorder.

When YouTube blogger Marta Riva was asked about the ingredients in the shortbread “cookies” she eats in her videos, she answered, “I made these cookies myself. They are porous and dry with the smell of rain and dust.” Marta added a drooling happy face and a thumbs up to her answer.

The shortbread “cookies” she referred to are made of halva clay. She has about 20.6k subscribers for her blog featuring videos of herself eating different types of clay. Her most viewed video has 70,000 views.

If you have pica, you can get any type of clay or any type of dirt through Instagram. You may choose among rose clay, white Turkestan, copper nakumatt, mini clay pots, magmitti, ruby red, Christmas clay, almond clay, ural clay, and several others. The price is about $16 for one pound. “I’m shipping on Wednesday, to New York, it will take three to five days,” said the Instagram user from California under the name of “ms.lovelycrunch.”

“You may order here,” answered another Instagram seller under the name of “new_yummyindianclays.” “It will take four to five days,” she added. Her profile bio says, “No refunds, No collect on delivery!”

Among the different types of dirt available on Instagram are Sedona red dirt, OG tan, grey dirt, Utah mountain dirt, red brick dirt, sunny white dirt, and even something called, “construction dirt.” Only a few of these videos specify that the earthy substances are not being swallowed. But the majority of these users seem to be swallowing the nonfood substances, including big pieces of chalk dipped in clay “paste.”

A person carrying blue, yellow, and red chalk in his or her hand.
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These aficionados describe their favorite earthy dishes as, “shortbread cookies with cream, dirt cupcakes, chocolate dirt popsicle, biscuits, clay muffin, clay cereal, and chalk bars.” Instagram user, “picaapeople_2019” provides instructions on her post: “bake the dirt for about eight hours at 200 degrees.” Unless it is a fallacy, I am assuming she does this for sterilization purposes. 

Other users with a more meticulous palate like to describe the taste. “Perfect crispy, earthy cement and dusty basement with great taste and smell of hot dry land splashed with water or shower rain,” says the user “limestone_cay” referring to her favorite clay, silver rose.

In another post, this same user describes the taste of Blackhall clay, “love the burnt wood and gas infused flavor. Earthy cement and metallic taste and it doesn’t stick! “As mentioned, if you ingest nonfood substances for at least a month and it’s not related to cultural practices, most likely, you’ll be diagnosed with pica. But this strange addiction doesn’t stop here.

Unfortunately, as you could’ve imagined, there are serious risk factors with the consumption of these substances. The DSM states that people with pica are usually diagnosed after they are hospitalized for bowel problems, intestinal obstruction, intestinal perforation, lead poisoning, and infections due to ingesting feces found in the dirt (toxoplasmosis and toxocariasis).

NEDA advises the public that people with pica can ingest hazardous chemicals. A challenge that professionals face is that people with pica often have a dual diagnosis. They usually have other mental disorders such as autism, schizophrenia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and intellectual disabilities.

The good news is that there is treatment. “Treating this deficiency with medication or vitamins often resolves the problems,” NEDA indicates on its website.

Lots of small chunks of brown clay on the ground, along with lots of random pebbles next to it.
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Even though videos about people eating nonfood substances are widely available on Instagram and YouTube, it is important to be aware that there are serious health risks involving this illness. If you or someone you know are experiencing cravings of nonfood substances, you may seek help by calling a professional, either a doctor or a therapist.

The Recovery Village is an institution that has a 24-hour intake line for people with eating disorders. It has several centers around the United States, and besides outpatient treatment, it also offers teletherapy and online counseling.