We all know that pregnant women sometimes get very strange food cravings. During your pregnancy, you might crave foods you have never even liked before. These cravings are caused by the changes that your body is going through. Increased levels of hormones in your system could change the way you perceive taste and smell, which might make some foods taste a lot better—or worse—than usual. The most well known cravings associated with pregnancy are pickles and ice cream, but the cravings can really be for just about any foods. In fact, some women even report cravings to eat things that are not actually food at all.

Pica is a condition that can also occur outside of pregnancy. People with pica experience cravings to eat non-food substances with no nutritional value. Common pica cravings include dirt, chalk, stones, charcoal, ice, baking soda and sand. Experts are not entirely sure what causes pica, but many agree it might be the body’s way of trying to make up for an iron deficiency. While these substances have absolutely no iron, a strange mental and physical process might convince the subconscious that they do when an iron deficiency exists.

While strange, pica is harmless and the cravings will pass. Pica only becomes dangerous if you try to satisfy these cravings by eating the non-food items. Obviously, eating ashes or a mothball will put you and your baby at risk in many ways. Instead of satisfying these cravings by eating non-food items, you should speak with your doctor about vitamin supplements. During your pregnancy, you should already be taking supplements, but pica might be a sign that you need more. If pica is interfering with your everyday life, you should consider getting tested for serious deficiencies and address them accordingly.

Your body will go through countless changes when you become pregnant, and you could even start experiencing pica. This is not uncommon, and its onset is completely out of your control. You should speak with your doctor if pica comes on during your pregnancy to make sure you have the proper vitamins and nutrients in your system to keep your baby healthy. You can also try chewing gum to resist cravings when they arise, and tell a friend to help you resist cravings with distractions. If you’re worried about getting pica during your pregnancy, you can try preventing it by monitoring your iron levels throughout gestation.

Source: Sera L. Young: Pica in Pregnancy: New Ideas About an Old Condition. Annual Review of Nutrition Volume 30 pp. 403-422 April 2010