pica & people eating things that aren't food
Consider some of the strangest things that people have been reported eating - cell phone, a lighter, and a 14-pound hair ball (this particular example was from a woman who ate her own hair). The woman suffered from a condition called trichotillomania, which is the compulsion to pull out your own hair, and tricophagia, which is the compulsion to eat it.
This eating behaviour is part of a larger category of behaviours that doctors call pica - an appetite or craving for substances that are not nutritive, such as paper, glass, coffee grounds, rust, metal and so on. Pica is considered to be an eating disorder and is found more often in kids rather than adults. For the pattern to be diagnosed as pica, people typically have to eat the item or items for at least a month. And sometimes the practice can last years.
In some instances, outside of short-term cravings or eating disorders, this practice involve performance art. One famous example of pica is where a man intentionally consumed metal - for years. French entertainer Michel Lotito (also known as Monsieur Mangetout) ate a Cessna 150 airplane in the late 1970s. The process took him about 2 years.
Let's now explore a variety of compulsions or cravings for nonfood items (be prepared to be grossed out):
Geophagia: Geophagy or Geophagia is the consumption of soil, clay or chalk. A functional benefit of geophagy is thought to be linked with balancing mineral and trace-element deficiencies.
Pagophagia: Is part of pregnancy cravings where women in many cultures chew ice. The practice has long been associated with iron-deficiency anemia. A study by psychologist Melissa Hunt, found that ice chewing might increase alertness in people who are anemic.
Placentophagy: The unusual practice of women ingesting placenta (organ grown in the uterus of a female mammal that connects mother to baby via the umbilical cord) after giving birth. Women eat their placenta in a variety of ways. The most courageous consume it raw, while others bake it into a meal, such as eggplant, parmesan or lasagna or slip it into a liquid. The vast majority, however, choose to eat their placenta in the form of dehydrated pills. The women who ingest their placenta report that it helps them combat baby blues, increases their breast milk production, reduces stress, and restores iron. It is important to note, however that there is currently no scientific evidence to support the claims that are made.
Anthropophagy: Also known as cannibalism is the consumption of human flesh or internal organs by other human beings. One interesting practice is called endocannibalism and is essentially a funerary rite. Tribes such as the Aghori of India, the Amahuaca of Peru, and the Fore of Papua New Guinea would historically engage in mortuary cannibalism. There is some variation, but it largely involves eating part of the remains, whether that is some of the bone, ashes, or flesh of the departed. Outside of ritual cannibalism, there is also what is called survival cannibalism. This type of anthropophagy involves consuming human flesh in emergency situations or in cases or extreme hunger, such as starvation. Notable example - South American athletes who were stranded in the Andes in 1972.
Treatment of pica involves behavioural strategies and psychoeducation for client and family. One form of treatment associates the pica behaviour with negative consequences or punishment in the form of mild aversion therapy or training clients about which foods are edible and which foods cannot be eaten through the use of positive reinforcements.
Food, Science, and the Human Body course by Professor Alyssa Crittenden
Image credit: By Guinness World Records - http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/67621-strangest-diet