We all have our preferences regarding food; one person’s delicacy is another person’s dietary disaster. However, Pica is about more than just eating unusual food; it is a serious eating disorder that can cause significant stress and potential harm. If you are suffering with Pica, you may be feeling lost, confused or even ashamed. The important thing to understand is that you are not alone and that UKAT is dedicated to providing effective treatment and support. With a greater understanding of Pica symptoms, causes and recovery strategies, you can take significant steps toward a healthier, happier life.


What is Pica?

Pica is an eating disorder that is characterised by the persistent consumption of non-nutritive, non-food substances. Those with Pica may consume paper, dirt, clay, hair, ice or even more hazardous materials like metal or glass.

The name “Pica” comes from the Latin word for the magpie, a bird known for eating almost anything. It is most commonly observed in young children, pregnant women and individuals with developmental conditions such as autism. However, as Pica is often shrouded in secrecy, shame and guilt, it is difficult to estimate how many people truly suffer from this condition accurately.

What are the signs and symptoms of Pica?

Identifying Pica can be challenging due to its secretive nature. However, there are signs and symptoms to look out for which could point to an issue:

  • Persistent eating of non-food items: One of the most obvious signs of Pica is the continual consumption of non-nutritive substances.
  • Nutritional deficiencies: Symptoms of deficiencies, such as anaemia, may also be present due to not getting enough nutrients from genuine food sources.
  • Dental problems: Eating non-food items can lead to dental wear, gum diseases and other oral injuries.
  • Intestinal issues: Consuming indigestible items can lead to constipation, intestinal blockage and other serious gastrointestinal issues. Some materials like paint can also be toxic, potentially leading to poisoning.
  • Infection risk: There is also an increased risk of parasitic infections due to ingesting contaminated substances.
  • Recognising these signs of Pica is vital in seeking help and avoiding potential medical emergencies.

    What are the causes of Pica?

    Pica’s causes are multifaceted and can vary greatly from person to person. There is often no single cause but rather a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors contributing to Pica’s development. These include:

    • Nutritional deficiencies: One of the most common Pica causes is a deficiency in certain nutrients, such as iron or zinc. This deficiency may lead you to crave non-food items which contain these metals.
    • Developmental disorders: Pica is often associated with developmental disorders like autism, where you may have abnormal eating habits due to sensory issues or other cognitive differences.
    • Mental health conditions: Certain mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), can also contribute to the development of Pica.
    • Cultural factors: In some cultures, eating certain non-food items is considered normal, which can lead to Pica. However, this is considered when a Pica diagnosis is made to differentiate between a cultural diet choice and an underlying health issue.
    • Pregnancy: Some pregnant women develop unusual cravings, which can include non-food items, possibly due to nutritional deficiencies or hormonal changes.

    What are the effects of Pica?

    Pica can have a range of effects, from physical health impacts to serious psychological and social issues.

    Physical effects of Pica

    As noted above, the physical effects of Pica can be severe and include:

  • Gastrointestinal damage
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Dental and oral damage
  • Infection and poisoning
  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Psychological effects of Pica

    In addition to the physical health consequences, Pica can also cause severe psychological challenges, including:

  • Stress and anxiety: This comes from the constant need to hide Pica behaviours and consequences.
  • Depression: The burden of Pica can contribute to feelings of depression and low self-esteem and can potentially lead to self-harming behaviours and even suicidal thoughts.
  • Personal effects of Pica

  • Strained relationships: Fear of judgement over Pica can make some people isolated and withdraw entirely from friends and family.
  • Social stigma: Misunderstanding Pica can lead to social stigma, judgement and bullying. These can profoundly affect education, work, and overall quality of life.
  • What does Pica diagnosis involve?

    As with all eating disorders, diagnosing Pica requires a comprehensive, professional evaluation due to the highly complex nature of the condition. This often involves a team of healthcare providers addressing the multifaceted aspects of the disorder and creating an effective Pica recovery plan. Pica diagnosis will usually include:

    Consideration of Pica DSM-V criteria

    According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), the criteria for Pica diagnosis include the persistent eating of non-nutritive, non-food substances for a period longer than one month. This behaviour must be:

    1. Not a culturally supported or socially normative practice
    This means that a person eating something unusual for one culture but typical for their own culture would also not be diagnosed with Pica.

    2. Inappropriate to the developmental level of the individual
    For example, toddlers and young children often put non-food items in their mouths as a natural part of development and exploration. Therefore, a child of this age would not be diagnosed with Pica. However, once the child reaches an age where this behaviour is unusual, a Pica diagnosis would then be considered.

    Physical Pica assessment

    A physical assessment is crucial in diagnosing the causes and consequences of Pica. This can help ascertain the extent of the issue and see through any denial or deception. A physical Pica assessment may include:

    • Blood tests: To check for nutritional deficiencies that may drive the urge to consume non-food items.
    • Gastrointestinal exams: To identify any physical damage or obstructions caused by ingesting non-food materials.
    • Dental check-ups: To assess any damage to teeth and gums.

    Psychological Pica assessment

    A psychological evaluation helps in understanding the behavioural aspects and any underlying mental health conditions associated with Pica. This may involve:

    • Interviews and questionnaires: To gather detailed information about eating habits, mental health history and developmental milestones.
    • Behavioural observation: This can provide insights into the triggers and circumstances surrounding eating non-food items.

    Compassion and sensitivity are paramount throughout the Pica diagnosis process, as many individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed of their condition. As Pica is most often seen in young children and those with developmental challenges, parents and other family members are typically involved in Pica diagnosis, too.

    What does effective Pica treatment involve?

    Treating Pica effectively requires a comprehensive, multifaceted approach that addresses all its causes and impacts. At UKAT’s Banbury Lodge, the focus is on a holistic recovery programme designed specifically for your unique needs. Our Pica rehab treatment involves:

    One-to-one therapy
    In these individual therapy sessions, you will work closely with a therapist who will help you uncover and understand the underlying causes of your condition. You will develop coping strategies tailored to your specific Pica triggers and challenges, creating a strong foundation for your Pica recovery.
    Group therapy
    Group therapy sessions are about connecting with others walking your path. In this supportive environment, you will share experiences, learn from each other and find solace in knowing you are not alone. This sense of community can be incredibly empowering, helping to reduce feelings of isolation and fostering a mutual support network.
    Nutritional counselling
    This is a crucial aspect of Pica treatment as it will help to educate you on healthy eating and show you exactly the damage that Pica is causing you. You will learn to eat a balanced diet and ensure that any nutritional deficiencies are addressed.
    Cognitive-behavioural therapy & dialectical behaviour therapy
    These therapies focus on altering negative thought patterns and behaviours contributing to Pica. CBT will help you challenge and change unhelpful beliefs, while DBT emphasises regulating emotions and improving relationships. Both therapies are instrumental in tackling the emotional and psychological aspects of Pica, equipping you with practical skills to manage and overcome the disorder.
    Family therapy
    Involving your family in the treatment process can be incredibly beneficial. Family therapy sessions aim to educate your loved ones about Pica, fostering a deeper understanding and creating a supportive environment at home. It is about strengthening communication, resolving conflicts and ensuring that your family is a pillar of support in your Pica recovery journey.
    Aftercare is a vital component of your long-term recovery. At UKAt, this includes ongoing weekly group therapy sessions, which help maintain the progress you have made during Pica treatment. Aftercare provides continuous support and guidance, ensuring you have the tools and resources to sustain your recovery journey.

    Begin a new Pica-free life today

    Embarking on the journey to overcome Pica can be challenging but it is a path filled with hope and the promise of a healthier, more fulfilling life. At UKAT, Banbury Lodge, we are committed to providing the support, care and treatment you need to navigate this journey successfully. Reach out to us today and take that brave first step towards a brighter future.

    Call us now for help


    Is PICA dangerous?
    Pica can be dangerous due to the risks associated with consuming non-food items. These risks include choking, poisoning, gastrointestinal injuries and infections, as well as potential nutritional deficiencies. Individuals with Pica need medical advice and treatment to avoid these dangers.
    Is PICA a form of autism?
    Pica is not a form of autism, but it is often observed in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disorder characterised by challenges with social interaction, communication and repetitive behaviours. Crucially, however, while Pica can co-occur in individuals with ASD, it is a distinct condition that can also appear in people without developmental disorders.
    Is PICA related to ADHD or OCD?
    Pica can be associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but it is a separate condition. Individuals with ADHD may display impulsive behaviours, which can include the consumption of non-food items. Similarly, the compulsive aspect of Pica can resemble behaviours seen in OCD. However, it is important to recognise that Pica is a distinct eating disorder, and its presence does not necessarily indicate ADHD or OCD.