At any point in your life, did you find yourself eating something that you knew you shouldn’t consume?
And I’m not talking about overindulging in your favorite foods. I’m talking about eating something not considered food. A product for matters outside of the body.
I will confess that as a young kid, for some reason, I used to take dollops of Blue Magic hair dress and eat it. It was a bit much, I know. But for some reason, I would do it. I can’t say that I was necessarily even hungry when I would eat some, but I guess I was bored and trying to be explorative.
Oh, and I also used to eat Lip Smacker lip balms. But, at least, those were made to smell and taste like food. (That’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it.)
Yes, I was a weird kid. But it’s not uncommon for people to consume all kinds of products. Like the people who eat baby powder. Balloons. Chalk. Pencil erasers. Cornstarch. String. Dirt (you read that right). Sand. Even ice, which was a favorite thing for my mother to hammer into chips and eat back in the day. Anything that has zero nutritional value and is not considered food that someone regularly eats, for quite some time (and will go out and replenish to eat), is a sign of a little-known eating disorder called pica. I was made aware of it after watching a recent episode of MTV’s popular documentary series, True Life.
In True Life: I Have A Dangerous Eating Obsession, which aired earlier this year, we met a guy named Cory, who would eat multiple hot glue sticks a day. And then there was Francesca, who lived to chomp on some bar soap and had been doing so since she was 8 years old. She actually ate about two per day before seeking help on the show, picking at pieces to swallow or cutting it up and putting it in drinks and salads. (On a side note, she is not the first person to confess to eating soap on TV, as a Black woman was featured on TLC’s My Strange Addiction for eating laundry detergent and soap). When Francesca finally did some research on what could be behind her desire for soap, which everyone else in her life thought was disgusting, she was alerted that she has pica.
And while eating certain things that aren’t food can be done for medicinal purposes or to relieve stress, like people eating kaolinite to relieve diarrhea, consuming clay to curb morning sickness and chomping on non-food items to reduce anxiety, according to Psychology Today, the possible health consequences are serious. Like poisoning (depending on what you’re eating), obesity, nutritional deficiencies, obstruction of the bowels, and more. But despite all that, the number of people hospitalized for and defined as having pica is on the rise.
Psychology Today said in a piece from 2011, “new data reveal that, between 1999 and 2009, the number of hospital stays for patients with pica nearly doubled (from 964 to 1,862). Patients with pica and other eating disorders may also be hospitalized for other conditions such as depression, fluid and electrolyte disorders, schizophrenia, or alcohol-related disorders. Although 9 in 10 cases of eating disorders occur among women, those in men increased by 53 percent in the last decade.”
There are numerous possible causes of pica, including people seeking something that they’re deficient of. In other words, the object they eat contains the mineral they’re seeking. Some mental health conditions, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and schizophrenia, have also been linked to individuals who develop pica. Pregnancy, with the cravings that come with it could also be a cause. And it could also be a cultural thing, and for others, a way to deal with uncomfortable social situations or to even receive more social attention.
But if you think you may have pica (and not just a fascination with ingesting an odd product for a few weeks), experts say that you need to tell your doctor so that they can ensure that physically, you’re okay, and help you obtain the treatment that fits your situation. Both Cory and Francesca did.
When MTV News staff caught up with Francesca after her episode aired, she revealed that she was doing much better, and feeling much better, saying, “Honestly, I do feel better physically. My bladder feels better, and I can run for a long time without feeling like I’m going to pass out. I do think that’s because of me not eating soap. I feel happier.”
However, Francesca was only able to cut back on the soap. She says it’s something she doesn’t see herself giving up for good, despite the risks.
“I did try to stop completely for a while, but I came to the realization that soap is a part of me. I don’t really eat it anymore, but I take a few licks each day. I don’t swallow the soap, and I rinse my mouth out afterward. I also switched to eating organic soap. I even started looking into how to make my own soap but haven’t tried that yet.”
She continued, “I’m okay with it. It’s something that I don’t think I’ll ever be able to quit.”