What Is Pica, and What Causes Those Odd Cravings?
"Help. I'm Addicted to Cornstarch!"
Jean has been eating cornstarch since she was 19 and pregnant with her first child. She eats a box a day and is trying to cut down. She has gained a great deal of weight and reports a low blood count.
Beth started eating cornstarch as a child because she saw her mother eating it. She keeps a box in her car and eats it with a straw. She had stopped eating it in college but picked up again when she lost her job. She has gained weight, and has developed fibroids and a heavy menstrual flow.
Jack found Karen’s box of Argo cornstarch hidden in the linen closet. She said she had quit, but he knew she had gone back. He used to make jokes about her powder addiction, but it is not funny anymore. She has severe headaches and is depressed. He used to throw the boxes away or wash them down the sink, but she just bought more.
For many generations, all the women in Linda’s family have eaten corn starch. She is determined to “stop the cycle.” She still has cravings, but they are less intense and less frequent now.
What Is Pica?
Craving cornstarch is an indication of iron and zinc deficiency. There are several reasons for iron and zinc deficiencies, so the first step in recovery from cornstarch cravings is a visit to the doctor. Be prepared to be completely honest about your cornstarch use.
Craving and eating non food items, to include cornstarch, is called pica. Pica is most commonly seen with people with developmental disorders, autism, mental retardation, children with brain injuries that affect their development, and in children ages 2–3. It is also a problem with some pregnant women and with people with epilepsy.
All children put non-food items in their mouth at one time or another. Children are curious, and putting objects in their mouth is one way children explore and learn about the world. Pica is characterized by persistent (one month or longer) and compulsive (uncontrollable) cravings to eat non food items. Pica is a disorder that affects 10–30% of children age 6 and under. Pica can lead to iron deficiency anemia and lead poisoning.
Non-Food Cravings With Pica
Burnt match heads
What Causes Pica?
Specific causes are not known, but there are some conditions that seem to increase a person’s risk of developing Pica. It is believed that pica may be caused by a lack of iron in the diet, but there are other contributing factors.
Iron and zinc deficiencies trigger specific cravings. The nutritional deficiencies could be caused by some of the conditions below, and they can be caused or worsened by the Pica itself. A person with Pica often replaces healthy food with non food items, and therefore is not getting iron in his or her diet. Sometimes iron supplements will help reduce cravings, but if iron deficiency anemia progresses this will not be sufficient. Potent iron supplements can be poisonous for children and should only be given to children under a doctor’s supervision. (See below for other causes of iron deficiency anemia.)
People who are dieting may attempt to use non-food items as a way of feeling full and easing hunger feelings. There are 30 calories in a tablespoon of cornstarch; over 1000 calories per 16-oz box. Most people who crave cornstarch gain weight.
It is believed that in some families, cultures and religions, eating non-food items is a learned behavior. Neglect, lack of parental supervision, or food deprivation – this is common in children living in poverty and in developing countries with high rates of poverty and famine.
Mental retardation, autism, developmental disorders, brain injuries and abnormalities as well as other mental health conditions such as OCD and schizophrenia can lead to pica.
It is believed that pica in pregnancy occurs with women who have had pica in their childhood or before their pregnancy—or who have a family history of pica.
What Can Be Done?
Your doctor can check for vitamin deficiencies, anemia and other conditions related to pica, and may request additional lab testing. In some cases a nutritionist and therapist may be needed to help with recovery. If the condition returns after treatment, see your doctor again. Pica is usually a temporary condition that ends when kids get older or when a pregnancy ends. When developmental problems or mental health conditions are involved, the problem may be ongoing.
Adults with pica often experience shame, anxiety, depression, relationship problems, body image problems, other eating disordered behaviors, and may have a history of abuse or neglect. Life stress, intense emotions and other mental health symptoms can trigger a relapse of these behaviors after a period of remission. Therapy can help reduce these symptoms and help with developing skills to better manage symptoms, feelings or stress.
A Word About Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA)
Iron Deficiency Anemia (IDA) is caused by a lack of iron in the blood. Lack of iron is a major cause of anemia in childhood. Infants, toddlers and teens are at high risk for developing IDA. IDA can be caused by:
- Not enough iron in the diet
- Poor absorption of iron in the body
- Blood loss from menstruation or in the intestinal tract
- Periods of rapid growth
- Poverty contributes to children not having enough iron in their diet.
- Infants and teens also have an increased need for iron due to their rapid growth.
- Infants who are taken off of formula and given cow’s milk before their first year are in danger of not getting enough iron. Cow’s milk also decreases absorption of iron and can irritate the intestinal lining – causing slow bleeding and blood loss.
- Prematurity and low birth weight also contributes to IDA due to less time in the uterus to build up iron stores.
- Toddlers ages 1-3 are no longer drinking formula and often do not get iron from other foods .If they drink more than 24 ounces of cow’s milk, they may also be irritating their intestinal lining and experiencing blood loss. Iron fortified cereal is a great source of iron for toddlers.
- Boys and girls in puberty are at risk for IDA because of rapid growth. Risk for girls is higher due to menstruation and diet.
This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
Questions & Answers
© 2011 Kim Harris