Eating disorders (EDs), including pica, are sometimes caused by biological factors. Studies have shown, “Although it is a compulsive behavior, most adults with a pica do not have a psychologic disorder.” Exclusive Hawaii Rehab uses evidence-based methods, psychiatric nutrition, and other methods to treat EDs. The clinical team uses comprehensive assessments and testing to determine what underlying biological issues may contribute to pica.

What Is Pica?

Pica is a compulsive eating disorder. People diagnosed with pica regularly ingest non-food substances, often in large quantities. Individuals with the disorder may hide their symptoms from friends and family out of shame or embarrassment. According to Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, “5.49% of adults . . . reported having consumed pica substances . . . at least once.”

Individuals who experience pica may have mineral deficiencies, causing their bodies to crave non-food items. Some of the most common mineral deficiencies include:

  • Iron
  • Zinc
  • Calcium

Addressing the underlying issue by ensuring a person receives the proper amount of vitamins and minerals each day reduces the risk of pica. Treatment often involves testing for deficiencies, changing a client’s diet, or introducing prescription medications to ensure clients get the vitamins and minerals they need to reduce cravings.

Risk Factors for Developing Pica

Many people hide the symptoms and side effects of pica because they believe it indicates a psychological problem. However, in many cases, pica is caused by physical health issues and requires nutritional treatments. The disorder is also linked to mental health disorders, including schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In addition, individuals with autism may experience pica and either chew on or ingest non-food items as a form of self-stimulation or “stimming.”

Risk factors for developing pica behaviors include:

  • Lack of proper diet, including malnutrition
  • Childhood neglect or abuse
  • Starvation
  • Co-occurring eating disorders
  • Pregnancy
  • Some medical conditions

Pica may act as a form of maladaptive stimming for some individuals with common mental health disorders. Treatment provides those clients with the tools they need to cope with stress using healthier methods.

Signs and Symptoms

No two cases are the same, and everyone responds differently to experiencing pica. Some people may be open about their unusual eating habits, while others may be very secretive and take significant steps to ensure no one knows about their compulsive eating.

A few common signs and symptoms of pica include:

  • Hoarding and eating specific non-food substances
  • Craving non-food substances
  • Preoccupation with gathering and eating non-food substances

Adolescents, young adults, and pregnant women are more likely to exhibit pica behaviors. Although people with pica can crave any non-food material, some of the most common include:

  • Hair
  • Ice chips
  • Dirt or clay
  • Chalk
  • Coins or other metal objects
  • Soap
  • Paper
  • Wood
  • Grass or other plants
  • Paint or dried fingernail polish

Some people may experience powerful cravings and develop rituals around eating non-food substances.

Pregnancy and Pica

Women are more likely to engage in pica behaviors compared to men. Pregnant women have a higher risk of developing the disorder. According to research, “A meta-analysis of studies of the prevalence of pica during pregnancy estimated that 27.8% of pregnant women reported experiencing pica.” Malnutrition and other medical issues may cause some pregnant mothers to crave non-food items or substances high in the vitamins and minerals they lack.

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Potential Health Side Effects of Pica

Pica is potentially deadly if someone ingests too much of a non-food substance. In addition, some substances may build up in the body and cause serious medical issues. For example, clay or hair may accumulate in the stomach, forming a dangerous blockage that must be surgically removed.

Eating an excessive amount of non-food substances can cause the following:

  • Toxicity, including lead poisoning
  • Intestinal blockages or ruptures
  • Internal infections
  • Introduction of forever chemicals and microplastics into the body
  • Teeth and gum damage caused by chewing on rocks, metal, or other hard items

Pica may also cause people to develop more severe nutritional deficiencies. According to the Journal of International Society of Preventative and Community Dentistry, “The eating of non-food substances may interfere with the body’s consumption of normal nutritional food.” The clinical team helps clients determine if they have any deficiencies caused by their condition and provides healthy ways to address them.

Experience True Healing

Our deeply-caring staff and the surrounding natural beauty offer an unparalleled healing experience.

Treatment Options at Exclusive Hawaii Rehab

Treatments at Exclusive Hawaii Rehab focus on the core issues causing the pica behavior and often involve addressing psychosocial, environmental, and family-related problems contributing to the behavior.

Exclusive Hawaii Rehab offers the following treatment options and services:

  • Psychotherapy, including cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Nutritional coaching
  • Peer support groups
  • Various forms of individual and group therapy
  • Case management
  • Aftercare planning
  • Alumni support

Clients are given the tools and resources they need to continue making healthy choices after completing treatment. Family members are also educated on what to expect during and after treatment to ensure they know how best to support their loved ones. The care team continues to provide alumni services to clients who require additional support. Environmental and behavioral changes are often necessary to manage pica behaviors. The care team guides clients through addressing issues causing the disorder to ensure successful outcomes.