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Dirt Diet Not Just a Female Thing, Say Researchers

Tim Boyer's picture

One type of anecdotal folk medicine that has persisted for many years is the belief that during pregnancy, women alone are especially prone to cravings that includes eating dirt, chalk and other generally non-nutritional substances.

One explanation behind this anecdote is that pregnant women are nutritionally starved causing the body to seek ingestible items that will slake their hunger or craving. This has often been used to support the notion that in earlier times a woman lost one tooth with every pregnancy due to a lack of and need for additional calcium in her diet—hence a reason for a craving toward eating chalk or some types of clay. More recent research has disproved this tooth–loss myth showing that bone remodeling makes up for calcium deficiencies.

Aside from anecdotal stories and myth, the ingestion of non-nutritive, non-food items is real and can result from causes including mental illness, undefined physiological needs and cultural influences. In general, the ingestion of typical non-food items is referred to as “Pica.” Pica gets its name from the Latin word for “Magpie”—a species of bird known to ingest almost anything. More narrowly, however, the ingestion of dirt is “geophagy” and the ingestion of starch is called “amylophagy.”

Pica caused by mental illness or as part of a reportedly developmental stage in some young children is a health hazard because of the risk of ingesting items such as lead-containing paint chips and other toxic substances that can cause poisoning or the ingesting of solid objects that can lead to intestinal blockage.

When pica takes the form of geophagy, studies have shown that it can be both beneficial and detrimental depending on what is in the dirt or clay that is consumed.

Pica in the form of eating concentrated starches as seen in amylophagy is a health concern because it is common is women who are pregnant. Typically, it is observed as a craving for purified cornstarch. Reports of cravings for cornstarch list a compulsion for starchy things because the pregnant woman enjoys the taste, texture or smell of starch. The health risk during pregnancy of eating too much starch in this form includes hyperglycemia, anemia and malnutrition.

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In a recent study published in the online journal PloS One, researchers wanting to delve more deeply into the social and biologic factors underlying pica, decided to perform an ethnographic study of people living in Madagascar who were known to partake in pica and amylophagy.

A survey of pica and amylophagy behaviors in a random sampling of 760 individuals in 167 households among two ethnic groups in 16 villages in the Makira Protected Area of Madagascar revealed that not only were many of the people partaking of pica and amylophagy, but geophagy as well. More surprising was the finding that men were just as inclined as woman to engage in pica and that the pregnancy factor appears to have no influence on whether a woman is ingesting non-nutritive items characterized as pica-like behavior.

In all, 13 non-nutritive food items were determined to be consumed with the prevalence of geophagy, amylophagy, and of other pica substances such as charcoal and chalk being 53.4%, 85.2% and 19.0% respectively.

Another interesting finding is that defining amylophagy and geophagy as a type of pica may not be accurate in some cultures due to the residents of Madagascar see starch as a food item for normal consumption rather than as something that is physically craved by a subset of individuals. Furthermore, geophagy is perceived by the subjects studied as a reflection of their belief in its medicinal value as opposed to an undefined craving. The medicinal value of geophagy is also noted in other cultures as well.

The authors of the study believe that their results demonstrate that due to social constraints and stigma, the reporting of geophagy in the U.S. may be underreported in men; and therefore, a dirt diet may not just be a woman thing, and merits further investigation of both the etiology and health consequences of earth, raw starch, and other non-food consumption.

Image Source: Courtesy of Wikipedia

Reference: “Pica and Amylophagy Are Common among Malagasy Men, Women and Children” PLoS One (Published on October 17, 2012); Christopher D. Golden et al.