Tell someone you're pregnant and one of the first questions you're likely to hear is if you are craving any weird things. Pickles and ice cream is a combo so closely associated with pregnancy it's almost expected you'll want them in the same dish.
Food cravings during pregnancy sometimes go beyond usual edibles, though. Some expectant mothers crave ice or freezer frost. Others can't get enough of baking soda, cornstarch, coffee grounds, or toothpaste. Even farther off the list of typical edibles, are dirt, clay, laundry starch, burnt matches, charcoal, mothballs, and cigarette ashes.
The craving to eat these things is called pica, the Latin word for magpie, a bird famous for eating just about anything. Humans with pica usually zero in on just one unusual item and crave it exclusively.
It is believed that many expectant mothers fail to tell their healthcare providers about their new curious food craving because they consider it a quirk of pregnancy or it's culturally accepted as normal behavior. In some cultures, it is considered normal to eat kaolin, a white clay, or sand during childhood and pregnancy. Estimates of pica in the general US population to range from 8% to 65%.
Medical studies of pica indicate the craving for these odd items may signal high levels of toxins in the body or nutritional deficiencies. Many of the most commonly craved non-edibles are used in various ways to clean up or clear out impurities:
- Clay facials and body treatments rid the skin of toxins
- Clay kitty litter eliminates noxious odors
- Clay cleans up oil spills
- Some overdose patients are treated with charcoal
- So are some poisoning victims
Toxins bind to clay, kaolin, charcoal, ashes, starch, and other things commonly consumed by pica patients and are eliminated from the body through the digestive process. Many commonly craved items are mineral-rich, chosen perhaps because they fill a nutritional need the diet doesn't meet. Either way, things consumed directly from the ground could be infested with dangerous parasites.
Various studies indicate pica is most common in immigrants from under-developed regions where levels of environmental toxins are high and access to a steady supply of nutritious foods is limited. Immigrants from these areas usually don't report their habit of eating dirt, sand, and other such elements because it's common to consume them in their native lands and within their cultural circles in the US.
Pica is considered a medical condition if the craving lasts for more than a month. During pregnancy, it should be reported immediately to one's medical team so tests can be done to determine if the strange cravings stem from harmful toxins or nutritional deficiencies. While pica is considered safe and normal in many cultures, it can be dangerous, especially during pregnancy.
Source: Chen, Linda. "The Old And Mysterious Practice Of Eating Dirt, Revealed." the salt / NPR. NPR. Apr 2, 2014. Web. Apr 23, 2014.