Pregnancy and Pica: Non-Food Cravings

Pica is the practice of craving substances with little or no nutritional value. No, we are not talking about ice cream! Most pica cravings involve non-food substances such as dirt or chalk. The word pica is Latin for magpie which is a bird notorious for eating almost anything.
It is true that the majority of women will experience cravings during pregnancy; however most of these cravings are for things like pickles and ice cream. Pica cravings are most commonly seen in children and occur in approximately 1.5% of all children; pica cravings within pregnant women are even less common.

What causes pica during pregnancy?
The reason that some women develop pica cravings during pregnancy is not known for certain. There is currently no identified cause, however according to the Journal of American Dietetic Association there may be a connection to iron deficiency.

Some speculate that pica cravings are the body's attempt to obtain vitamins or minerals that are missing through normal food consumption. Sometimes pica cravings may be related to an underlying physical or mental illness.

What are typical pica cravings during pregnancy?
The most common substances craved during pregnancy are dirt, clay, and laundry starch. Other pica cravings include: burnt matches, stones, charcoal, mothballs, ice, cornstarch, toothpaste, soap, sand, plaster, coffee grounds, baking soda, and cigarette ashes.

Are pica cravings harmful to the baby?
If you give into pica cravings and eat non-food substances it is potentially harmful to both you and the baby. Eating non-food substances may interfere with the nutrient absorption of healthy food substances and actually cause a deficiency. Pica substances are also a concern because non-food items may contain toxic or parasitic ingredients.

Some pica craving substance may actually create weight gain. Other pica craving substances may wear down teeth or create bowel obstructions and constipation.

What can you do if you have pica cravings?
Don't panic; it happens and is not abnormal. The most important thing is to inform you doctor and make sure you have a complete understanding of the specific risks associated with your particular cravings. Here are some suggestions to help you deal with pica cravings:

  • Inform your doctor and review your prenatal health record
  • Monitor your iron status along with other vitamin and mineral intake
  • Consider potential substitutes for the cravings such as chewing sugarless gum
  • Inform a friend of your craving who can help keep you accountable

Reprinted with permission from American Pregnancy Association.