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What Is Pica Eating Disorder in Children?

Learn about the pica eating disorder in children from Allegra Broft, M.D. in this Howcast video.


Pica is an unusual type of eating problem. We don't actually, officially consider it as an eating disorder diagnosis. It's elsewhere as an official diagnosis. Pica is an unusual eating problem where kids of various ages, and actually adults can have pica as well, ingest non-nutritive substances on a repetitive basis.

The different types of non-nutritive substances that may be ingested are quite variable. Somewhat more typical things are things like ice chips, but perhaps also paint chips. Other types of substance that typically, or often, have a metallic quality to them. Things like clay or soil may be part of the pica syndrome. There can even be some more unusual types of ingestions such as even feces, cigarette butts and other types of non-nutritive substances.

Clearly, pica, if it's something that's emerging, is something to be quite concerned about because it's not healthful to eat these things. It can actually be dangerous and medical status should clearly be monitored quite closely if this is going on.

We don't really exactly why pica comes out in some people. There does seem to be in some folks with pica low measures in the blood of certain mineral levels. There have been some ideas that maybe pica comes out of a mineral deficiency, although we don't really know that that's cause and effect. We just know that mineral levels can be low in some of these patients and maybe that's actually an after effect to the fact that they're eating non-nutritive substances.

There can be other risk factors that contribute to pica. Features like maternal deprivation may be a factor. Features like developmental delay may be another factor.

Pica can be addressable, although there's no one treatment that's known to really work as a cure. Treatments tend to look at behavioral modification strategies, as well as education about what's nutritive and not nutritive. Some medications may be helpful. Consultation with a physical may weigh into that as well. Sometimes pica spontaneously remits as well.

Again, like with other types eating problems, if a syndrome like what I've just described as pica sounds like its present, the best thing is just to get it checked out by a physician, someone that's knowledgeable about this type of problem. Strategies can be put into place to try to remediate the behavior and get to a healthier place.

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