I craved a lot of things while I was pregnant. With my sons, it was citrus fruits, especially grapefruit — something I don’t even like. When I was carrying my daughter, it was Chinese food and chocolate cake. After hating olives my whole life, I consumed an entire platter of cream cheese and olive sandwiches at a baby shower one afternoon with my third. I had no idea why I wanted them, I just had to have them — all of them.
We’ve all heard of crazy pregnancy cravings — pickles and ice cream, for example — I even read about one woman who starting melting mozzarella cheese over all of her desserts. But the strangest one I’ve heard of yet isn’t something readily available in the grocery store — it’s craving soil or clay, and it can be dangerous.
Geophagy is the name for the habit of eating earth-, clay- or soil-like matter and is especially prevalent from Africa to Australia to the Middle East. Human geophagy has been known to be related to pica, which is an eating disorder in which a person experiences strange cravings for things that have no nutritional value, such as ice, hair, paper, paint, metal, glass or even feces.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders, when a person has these cravings for a month or longer, they may need medical attention. Eating these items can result in issues with physical and mental health development, not to mention it may cause a need for surgery.
Pica has also been linked to emotional trauma, family issues and parental neglect and is mostly more common in pregnant women and children with developmental disabilities.
According to a study done by the Medical University of Vienna, between 30 and 80 percent of people in Africa, especially woman, practice this regularly and eat about 100 to 400 grams per day. Women have been known to crave it during nursing or pregnancy. Another study has shown it can actually be damaging to an unborn baby because some soils contain high levels of lead or mercury.
While some say pregnant people eating clay or dirt has been known to help with symptoms such as heartburn or morning sickness, it is also very cheap and easily accessible in Africa, Australia and the Middle East.
SheKnows talked to Dr. Armando Hernandez-Rey, an OB-GYN and reproductive endocrinologist about this fascinating craving.
SheKnows: Are pregnant women eating and craving clay or soil because they are lacking something else their body needs?
Armando Hernandez-Rey: Pica, an urge to consume substances not culturally defined as food such as clay or dirt, is a common phenomenon among pregnant women. It can be suggestive of a mineral deficiency such as iron also known as iron deficiency. This is normal in pregnancy due to an increase of blood volume needed for support and growth of the baby. Increased demand causing anemia can be prevented by adequate iron supplementation. Ideally, iron should less than 11 to 11.5 during the first and second trimester and less than 12 in the third trimester and closer to delivery.
SK: How harmful is it to consume soil as part of your diet while pregnant?
AHR: Prolonged ingestion of nonnutritional substances is bad for overall health and may cause intestinal issues.
SK: Does it really help with heartburn and morning sickness, or is it more of a cultural thing?
AHR: Pica has no effect on heartburn and morning sickness. It’s more of a placebo effect for those who do it culturally.
For some women it may be a relief for certain pregnancy symptoms, but it sounds like eating and craving nonnutritional food can be a bigger issue manifested by neglect or stresses and is considered to be an eating disorder that is curable with treatment.