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How to Treat Pica Eating Disorder

How to Treat Pica Eating Disorder

Approximately 1.2 percent of all adults in the United States and 2.7 percent of all adolescents have some sort of eating disorder. Eating disorders disproportionately affect females, but all sexes and ages may develop an unhealthy relationship to food.

One of the rarest eating disorders is pica. Pica is so rare, in fact, that no statistics exist that pinpoint the number of people who suffer from it. Pica tends to afflict those who live in the developing world and those who have mental or emotional problems, but pica isn’t limited to these populations.

In some cases, the non-food items may supply missing nutrients, such as minerals. In many cases, though, the non-food items are either neutral or dangerous for health. 

If your child has pica, you may wonder how to stop them from ingesting non-nutritious and potentially dangerous substances. Our team of experts at The Soho Center for Mental Health treat eating disorders, including pica, at our Greenwich Village offices in Manhattan, New York City, New York. Here’s how.

Is something missing in the diet?

Sometimes, kids or adults reach for non-food items because their bodies lack a particular nutrient, and the non-food item may contain it. For instance, your child’s body might be craving:

Some non-food items may contain the lacking nutrients. Nails and other steel objects, for example, may contain iron. Soil or clay has an abundance of minerals. In fact, some cultures encourage consumption of clay or soil for that very reason.

However, if you or your child suffers from a micronutrient deficiency, supplements and a healthier diet are a safer choice than non-food objects. Even clay and soil may contain parasites that could lead to illness.

When evaluating pica, we recommend blood tests that evaluate nutritional status. If malnutrition drives the behavior, we may refer you to a dietician or recommend supplements to provide the nutrients and reduce the risk for pica behaviors.

Is pica temporary?

The American Psychiatric Association’s DSM-5 states that a person must eat non-food items for at least one month before being diagnosed with pica. Also, it’s important to note that children aged 2 or under often mouth non-food items as part of their development and so are excluded from a pica diagnosis.

Women who are pregnant sometimes temporarily crave non-food items, particularly those that are rich in iron. Pregnant women may also chew on ice. For the most part, if you’re pregnant and have cravings, you won’t need treatment for pica.

However, if you actually consume the non-food items, you could benefit from aversive therapies and other treatments. Even chewing on ice could damage your teeth and should be avoided. You may also benefit from iron supplementation or other prenatal vitamins.

Is your pica dangerous?

The minerals and substances ingested in non-food items may interfere with your ability to absorb nutrients, putting you at risk for malnutrition. Some non-food items are potentially dangerous. Popular pica choices include: 

Pica objects may be toxic themselves or pose a choking or perforation hazard. 

How to treat pica

Pica is a compulsive behavior and may be linked with other conditions, including mental health issues, developmental issues, or autism. Some interventions to prevent pica simply involve keeping the preferred non-food item out of reach via:

However, in many cases your child needs intervention by an eating disorder specialist. Our counselors work with you and your child to help them learn to redirect their attention away from the favored items. Possible interventions include:

Mild aversion therapy

We teach your child that reaching for a non-food item has mild consequences, so that it becomes less desirable. We also reward them when they reach for an appropriate food item. 

Behavioral therapy

We teach them new coping methods, so that they don’t reach for non-food items in times of stress.

Differential reinforcement

Your child learns to focus on new behaviors and activities, and to avoid pica behaviors.

If you suspect that you or your child has pica, contact our team for testing, diagnosis, and treatment today. We’re also pleased to offer teletherapy via a secure online portal.

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