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What Is Pica, and What Causes Those Odd Cravings?

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Craving and eating non-food items, including cornstarch, is called pica.

Craving and eating non-food items, including cornstarch, is called pica.

"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, including cornstarch, is called pica. Pica is most commonly seen in people with developmental disorders, autism, mental retardation, children with brain injuries that affect their development, and children ages two to three. It is also a problem with some pregnant women and with people with epilepsy.

All children put non-food items in their mouths at one time or another. Children are curious, and putting objects in their mouths 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 to 30% of children aged six and under. Pica can lead to iron deficiency anemia and lead poisoning.

Non-Food Cravings With Pica

With pica, people have odd cravings for non-food items and will compulsively eat these otherwise inedible items.



Paint chips


baking soda




Laundry starch

coffee grounds

cigarette ashes


Burnt match heads

Cigarette butts


cigarette butts









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 to 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.

Cultural Factors

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 developing countries with high rates of poverty and famine.

Developmental problems

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 in women who have had pica in their childhood or before their pregnancy—or who have a family history of pica.

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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

Contributing Factors

  • 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 contribute to IDA due to less time in the uterus to build up iron stores.
  • Toddlers ages one to three 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. The 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.

© 2011 Kim Harris


Kim Harris (author) on February 18, 2015:

Wow. Lovie Love. Thanks for the well articulated insider view and sound advice. Cornstarch cravings affect a lot of people and the health consequences are serious.

LovieLove on February 16, 2015:

There's a distinct link between African American woman and eating corn starch/dirt/ice...many people in my family (as well as myself) partake in this addiction, and I know of others who've seen their grandmothers or other female family members eating it when they were young. I saw my aunt eating it and she'd never share with me. One day when I was about 10 I got curious and snuck a spoonful and I hated it. I instantly spat it out. Fast forward 9 yrs later, I bought some to thicken up a beef stew. One day, for some strange reason, when I opened my cupboard and looked at the container, I had a brief flashback to my aunt, and trying it for the first time, and instead of looking back with disdain my mouth actually started watering! Hesitantly, I grabbed a spoon and tried it. The light powderiness...ugh even writing about it makes my mouth water! Its so good! But I never swallow it. I only chew so that I can get the taste and the craving out of the way and then I spit it out. But this stuff is addicting. Please people just chew and spit, swallowing will only cause health issues.

Kim Harris (author) on November 16, 2014:

Danesha. Thanks for your comment. Please see a doctor as soon as you can.

danesha on November 12, 2014:

Im so young n i want to stop corn starch but I can't. Im nothing but 14 my mama n my boyfriend hide I form me but I don't care.I really need help

Kim Harris (author) on December 07, 2013:

Thanks for reading and commenting, Anonymous. It does seem to be cultural or regional, and passed on through the generations.

Anonymous on December 01, 2013:

Very addicted. My grandmother ate it when I was young and would let me eat it with her. I don't have kids so I can't say it was a pregnancy addiction, I think its more cultural. I have the worst tooth aches and very heavy cycle flow. I just can't break the habit!

Kim Harris (author) on February 22, 2012:

Thanks Verna, for sharing your experience. I think it's hard for people to grasp that people really struggle with this. I would talk to a Dr first to see about your iron levels and see if there are other medical problems causing a low level of iron. I would start working on the anxiety, depression and stress as soon as possible too. Let me know how it goes.

Verna on February 22, 2012:

I ate cornstarch for a little while when I was ten years old, because I saw my mom eating it when she was pregnant with my brother. When I was pregnant with my daughter, I had the craving again but stop eating it after I had her. With my son I ate so many boxes of cornstarch that my husband use to hide them from me. My son is four years old and I still have the cravings, I hide the boxes now, wish I can stop but I can't seem to do it on my own. After reading the article, I Know I need help. I don't know about developmentally issues but I'm often anxious, depress and stress. I blame it on work and school but who knows.

Kim Harris (author) on December 06, 2011:

hi truba75. thanks for your comment. feel free to come back and say more about your experience. you're not alone. i'm surprised there haven't been more comments from people struggling with this unusual, yet more common that we think, behavior.,

truba75 on December 06, 2011:

Hay people i eat corn starch hae not had any in a month and it is hard. i am aniema and it is hard tio stop really really hard.

Kim Harris (author) on October 11, 2011:

Thanks for reading and commenting JamaGenee. A child sleep walking is scary in itself, without the toilet paper eating! I'm glad she outgrew the craving.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on October 11, 2011:

I'd never heard of people craving cornstarch, either, but do know that craving non-food substances indicates a lack of some vitamin in the diet. But a friend and I have NO idea what caused her daughter to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night to snack on toilet paper, of all things, when she was a child. (She outgrew the craving.)

Oh, and according to one pediatrician, a teaspoon of dirt now and again is good for kids. Dirt contains minerals and other substances that make their bodies immune to some childhood diseases. Go figure. ;D

Kim Harris (author) on October 11, 2011:

LOL. I didn't smell that one coming. Thanks ThoughtSandwiches:) I'm glad the title lured you in, and that you stayed through to the end.

ThoughtSandwiches from Reno, Nevada on October 11, 2011:

Hi Kim...generally speaking...any hub entitled "Corn Starch Cravings" is going to get a look from me.

That said...your's is the first...and I am glad I established the rule! I had no idea this was going on and I like to imagine weird stuff going on...kind of what I do really...

Thanks for the awesome information! Voting Up and everything!

Kim Harris (author) on September 28, 2011:

Thank you for reading and commenting Stephanie. I love statistics and prevalence rates, and numbers in general; and then putting them in a human context.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on September 28, 2011:

I had heard of pica, but never knew about the cornstarch addiction before. I also found your statistics interesting and surprising. I never knew that pica was so prevalent. Thanks for a well-written and well-researched article!

Kim Harris (author) on September 27, 2011:

Thanks RNMSN. Isn't it interesting all the things you could go a whole lifetime not knowing...and perhaps wish you had! It's good to "see" you:)

Barbara Bethard from Tucson, Az on September 27, 2011:

fantastic hub Kim!! being from the south Pica is part of life but I hadn't heard of eating cornstarch! I knew of a family that drove to the next state because the mud hills there were better than the ones by their own river. interesting.

Kim Harris (author) on September 22, 2011:

Pica is very common with people with developmental disorders. Prevalance rates vary, are unpredictable, and seem to range from 0% - 68%. The handbook of Clinical Child Psychology estimates 4-26% in institutionalized populations. It's difficult to measure for several reasons, but partly because people are not likely to admit to it due to the shame. There have been studies done in different populations, such as women in Saudi Arabia, southeastern US, and low income pregnant women born in Mexico. The study on low income pregnant women born in Mexico indicates that it is enough of a problem that low income pregnant women from Mexico should be educated about the risks to the mother and fetus. The rates in the two groups studied were 44% in one group and 31% in another. These numbers include all forms of Pica - not just cornstarch.

PS. It's good to see you alekhouse. Thanks for stopping in:)

Nancy Hinchliff from Essex Junction, Vermont on September 22, 2011:

I have never heard of anyone eating cornstarch. Is it that common? Really interesting hub.

Kim Harris (author) on September 22, 2011:

It's interesting when we think about how our body will let us know it needs something. Of course, it helps if we know how to listen to our body. It would appear to need cornstarch, not iron! Thanks for reading and commenting MaryCola

MaryCola from Georgia on September 22, 2011:

Interesting. Never heard of this addiction.We learn something new every day.

Kim Harris (author) on September 21, 2011:

Thanks Zabbella. I know. Is there no end to the things we can learn!

Zabbella from NJ-USA on September 21, 2011:

Goodness! you learn something new everyday. Very interesting!

Kim Harris (author) on September 20, 2011:

Hi Happyboomernurse:) and thanks. I generally learn something new when I do the research, or at least get a deeper understanding of the topic. I actually worked with a client who had cornstarch cravings. she saw the dr and started taking iron supplements. This time I knew corn starch cravings were believed to be due to iron deficiency, but I learned more about IDA.

Gail Sobotkin from South Carolina on September 20, 2011:

I always learn something when I read your well researched articles and I love the interesting way that you make what could otherwise be just facts, come to life. Enjoyed the case scenarios.

Voted up, useful and interesting.

Kim Harris (author) on September 20, 2011:

Thanks dallas93444, for reading, commenting and flagging up. Pass the popcorn please:) I was aware of Pica but hadn't heard of cornstarch cravings until about 5 yrs ago.

Dallas W Thompson from Bakersfield, CA on September 19, 2011:

Think I'll have some popcorn! Much simpler.. I was/am aware of this "disorder." It is a temporary thing. Then the baby changes everything! Flag up!

Kim Harris (author) on September 19, 2011:

Thanks dahoglund. Dirt eating is most common in the south east US. Some people who grew up eating dirt move north and are glad to return because the dirt tastes better in the south. I saw a video where people were mining for dirt in Africa - apparently there was dirt that actually did have some nutritional value. I'm not sure how true it was or how prevalent.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on September 19, 2011:

I admit I never heard of this addiction.Some things like dirt eating I have run across in fiction. I have learned something new. Good hub.

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