You probably have heard that sometimes women can crave some pretty strange foods when they are pregnant — and pickles and ice cream seem to be very popular foods of choice! Sometimes, though, pregnant women can get cravings for things that are even food at all!  Read on to find out more about it!

What Exactly is Pica?

Pica is a term that doctors use when pregnant women get cravings to eat things other than actual food. This is a fairly uncommon thing — at least in the United States — but while people make jokes about it or tease the woman for their behavior, it can actually lead to health problems for both mom and baby.  It is considered to be an eating disorder.

What Do Women with Pica Crave?

It is important to remember that pica will be different for every woman.  There are, however, some items which different women with pica will crave. This can include:

  • Dirt, clay or sand (this particularly kind of pica is known as geophagia, or literally “dirt eating”)
  • Chalk
  • Laundry starch
  • Toothpaste
  • Baking soda
  • Soap
  • Ashes
  • Moth balls
  • Ice
  • Coffee grounds

As you can see, some of these items probably sound pretty strange — and are certainly not meant to be eaten.  But women with pica will still crave them — and sometimes eat them in large quantities — and this can cause a lot of problems.

What Causes Pica?

No one really knows what causes pica — but there are some theories.  Some doctors think that it is caused when a woman does not have enough iron in her body. This is called anemia and it is a common problem for women who are pregnant. Sometimes, it has been found that when the woman’s anemia is treated, her pica cravings go away on their own.  However, some women who get pica don’t have any problems with low iron levels and some doctors think that it might be caused by an underlying medical problems or even a mental health disorder. The jury is still out on this one!

Sometimes, culture plays a role in this behavior. For instance, geophagia is a common practice for many women in different parts of the world like Africa and Asia. In the United States, people of African American descent living in the rural South will frequently practice this custom. In these cultures, it is not considered to be an unusual or abnormal practice.

It has also been found that women who are pregnant when they are teenagers or very young adults are also at greater risk — but doctors are not sure why.

Why is Pica a Problem?

Pica may sound strange — or even funny — but it actually can cause serious problems for pregnant women and their unborn children. These problems can include:

  • Intestinal obstruction. This is a term doctors use when something blocks off the intestines and prevents people from going to the bathroom normally. Because people with pica will eat non-food items, the body cannot digest them normally and it is easy to get blocked. Sometimes this can require surgery to remove the object that is blocking things off.
  • Dental problems. Eating items such as dirt, chalk or ice can be hard on the teeth and if pica is persistent and a woman eats these items in large quantities, it can lead to enamel damage or tooth loss.
  • Perforation means that something breaks through the wall of an organ. For instance, if a woman eats match sticks (another common craving), if these get broken off, they can be quite sharp and puncture the throat, stomach or intestines. Again, this can sometimes require surgery to correct.
  • Parasitic infection. Women with geophagia are putting themselves — and their babies — at risk for parasitic infection. This is because microscopic animals living in the soil can enter the body when dirt or clay is eaten. Once they are in the body, they can take vital nutrients away from mom and baby in order to grow and reproduce.

Why is Pica Hard to Diagnose?

Again, because for most Americans this behavior is not considered usual, women with pica can be teased about this behavior and can be embarrassed or ashamed of it — or even do it in secret so that no one knows there is even a problem. Some doctors think that pica might be more common than people realize since it is so under-reported.

What Should a Woman Do if She has Pica?

First off, if a woman begins to crave unusual things while she is pregnant, the important thing is not to panic!  Many other women will have the same problem! It is also really important to talk to the doctor about these cravings so that he or she knows that there is an issue.

The doctor may do blood work to see if a woman’s iron levels and levels of other nutrients are at a normal level.  Again, if a woman’s iron levels are low and this problem is treated, sometimes the pica will go away without further treatment.  If doctors suspect that something else is wrong, they might do further tests to figure out the problem.  They might also suggest that women use things like sugarless gum to help take the edge off their cravings.

The takeaway here is that while pica might sound strange or even humorous, it can cause serious problems for women who get it — as well as for their babies.  And many women never report this to their doctors because they are embarrassed by their behavior. However, in many cases, these strange cravings may just be the result of being low on nutrients like iron — and when this underlying problem is fixed, the pica can be fixed as well. This is just another reason why pregnant women should share this with their doctor if the issue comes up as it will prevent serious health complications down the road.