We all know kids who are “picky eaters” — the boy who will eat only hot dogs or the girl who refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets in the shape of dinosaurs. We also know that kids will usually outgrow this behavior. But what about adults with strange eating habits? There’s the guy in the U.K. who will eat only sausage and chips for dinner and the American woman who says she ate the ashes of her dead husband. What some might call addictions or compulsions are classified by the psychiatric community as eating disorders.
Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID) is an eating disorder in which a person’s diet is limited based on the food’s appearance, texture, smell or taste, resulting in a limited list of foods that will be tolerated.
A young woman in Australia with ARFID was afraid to eat anything but KFC popcorn chicken and fries. In fact, she couldn’t ever remember eating fruits or vegetables. With the help of a hypnotherapist, however, she ultimately overcame the disorder. Doctors believe that normal picky eating is related to feelings of control, while ARFID is brought on by fear and anxiety. Some doctors take a behavioral treatment approach with this disorder. So, instead of trying to understand why the patient will eat only fries, they help the patient learn to tolerate other foods.
What Causes Pica?
Pica is an eating disorder characterized by an appetite for substances with no nutritional value, such as rocks or toilet paper. The condition is common in young children, and, thankfully, they typically grow out of it. Those with psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and obsessive-compulsive disorder are also susceptible to pica.
Pregnancy can lead to pica, causing a woman to eat things she otherwise would not. Pregnant women have reported strange cravings (beyond the classic pickles and ice cream) including dry teabags, chalk and rubber from the sole of a slipper.
In the rural South, there’s been a cultural practice of compulsively ingesting dirt or clay. The behavior is most commonly passed down from mother to daughter, especially during a first pregnancy. In more recent years, women have been drinking laundry starch, a practice that is believed by the users to be more sanitary.
A series on the TLC network called “My Strange Addiction” took a look at the disorder. Among the compulsions featured on the program were the consumption of bricks, plastic bags, sand, drywall, dryer sheets, cat food and cigarette ashes.
The show also examined the behavior of people with the compulsion to drink such things as air freshener, urine, blood, household cleaner and paint. One woman said she was consuming up to five bottles of nail polish a day.
Stressors such as family issues, emotional trauma, parental neglect and a disorganized family structure are strongly linked to pica as a form of comfort.
Low levels of minerals in a person’s body, especially a zinc or iron deficiency, can bring on pica. Iron deficiency will sometimes result in pica that is characterized by a desire to chew ice or eat dirt. In these cases, pica will be resolved quickly, within a matter of days, after a mineral supplement is introduced into the diet. If the deficiency returns, people will often go back to craving the same items they had ingested before.
By Lisa Page Rosenberg