What causes persistent eating of non-food items and what should I do about it?

Symptom Database

Have you ever noticed someone persistently eating non-food items? Perhaps you have witnessed someone chewing on ice, dirt, or even paper. This unconventional eating habit is known as pica disorder, a condition characterized by the compulsive consumption of non-nutritive substances. In this article, we will explore the causes behind persistent eating of non-food items and discuss what you can do if you or someone you know is affected by this disorder.

Understanding Pica Disorder

Pica disorder is a complex condition that can affect individuals of all ages, but it is most commonly observed in children and pregnant women. The disorder is characterized by an intense craving and consumption of substances that lack nutritional value, such as clay, chalk, hair, or even metal objects. While the exact cause of pica disorder is unknown, several factors have been identified as potential contributors:

  • Nutritional deficiencies: Pica disorder may arise as a result of certain nutrient deficiencies, such as iron or zinc. The body’s craving for these missing nutrients may lead to the consumption of non-food items.
  • Developmental disorders: Individuals with developmental disorders, such as autism or intellectual disabilities, may be more prone to engaging in unconventional eating habits.
  • Mental health conditions: Pica disorder has been associated with certain mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia.
  • Cultural and environmental factors: In some cultures, the consumption of non-food items may be considered a normal practice. Additionally, individuals living in environments where non-food items are easily accessible may be more likely to develop pica disorder.

The Risks and Complications

While occasional ingestion of non-food items may not cause significant harm, persistent and excessive consumption can lead to various health risks and complications. Some of the potential consequences of pica disorder include:

  • Gastrointestinal issues: Consuming non-food items can damage the digestive system, leading to stomach pain, constipation, or bowel obstruction.
  • Toxicity: Certain substances, such as lead or mercury, can be toxic when ingested. Prolonged exposure to these substances can have severe health consequences.
  • Infections: Eating non-food items increases the risk of bacterial or parasitic infections, particularly if the items are contaminated.
  • Dental problems: Chewing on hard or abrasive substances can damage teeth, leading to dental fractures or enamel erosion.

Seeking Professional Help

If you or someone you know is persistently eating non-food items, it is crucial to seek professional help. A healthcare provider, such as a doctor or psychologist, can assess the underlying causes and develop an appropriate treatment plan. Here are some steps you can take:

  • Medical evaluation: A thorough medical evaluation will help identify any underlying medical conditions or nutritional deficiencies that may be contributing to pica disorder.
  • Psychological assessment: A psychologist or psychiatrist can assess for any co-occurring mental health conditions and provide appropriate interventions.
  • Behavioral therapy: Behavioral therapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help individuals with pica disorder develop healthier coping mechanisms and reduce the urge to consume non-food items.
  • Nutritional counseling: If nutritional deficiencies are identified, a registered dietitian can provide guidance on achieving a balanced diet and addressing any specific nutrient needs.
  • Environmental modifications: Making non-food items less accessible and creating a safe environment can help reduce the likelihood of engaging in pica behaviors.

Support and Understanding

Dealing with pica disorder can be challenging, both for the affected individual and their loved ones. It is essential to approach the situation with empathy, understanding, and support. Here are some tips to consider:

  • Educate yourself: Learn more about pica disorder to better understand the condition and its potential causes.
  • Open communication: Encourage open and honest communication with the affected individual, allowing them to express their feelings and concerns.
  • Provide alternatives: Offer alternative activities or distractions to redirect the individual’s focus away from non-food items.
  • Seek support groups: Connecting with others who have experienced or are experiencing pica disorder can provide a sense of community and shared understanding.


Persistent eating of non-food items, also known as pica disorder, is a complex condition that can have various underlying causes. It is essential to seek professional help to identify and address the root causes of this behavior. With the right support and treatment, individuals with pica disorder can develop healthier coping mechanisms and reduce their reliance on unconventional eating habits. Remember, understanding, empathy, and support are key in helping someone navigate through this challenging condition.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
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