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What Is Dirt Eating?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 15, 2021

Dirt eating, also known as geophagia, is when you have the urge to eat dirt. Children sometimes do it, and it has also been linked to pregnancy, some psychological conditions, and nutrient deficiencies.

History of Geophagia

Geophagia has been around for centuries. In the 18th century, Roman physicians reported on the effects of eating dirt.

Scholars have studied the act of eating dirt in contemporary urban South Africa. Some experts have suggested it happens because of famine and poverty. In most cases, people eat dirt to help ease stomach troubles or nutrient deficiencies.   

Why Do People Eat Dirt?

There are many reasons people eat dirt. 

Pica. With pica, you have the strong urge to eat items that aren’t food. You might crave dirt, clay, chalk, and/or starch. You will also likely eat large amounts of these things. 

Pregnancy cravings. Pregnant women in parts of Africa commonly eat dirt. They crave the taste and texture. Usually, the choice of dirt is red clay. There are medicinal, cultural, and religious reasons behind this practice. Some believe eating dirt is good for the baby, but there can be harmful effects when the soil contains pollutants or parasites. 

Nutrient deficiencies. Dirt eating happens more often in places where there is famine and poverty. If you have iron deficiency anemia, you may want to eat dirt. While soil does contain minerals and nutrients, it’s not a safe way to get them into your body. 

Cultural beliefs. Certain cultures believe eating dirt can be good for you. These beliefs are rooted in earlier times when soil was used to soothe digestive problems. People in some cultures eat dirt to relieve ulcers, diarrhea, or menstrual pain.  

Understanding Pica

You may have pica as a child or get the condition later in life. It can come and go. Children and pregnant women are most likely to have episodes of it. 

Dirt and chalk are the substances most commonly eaten by people with pica. Some people think pregnant women do this because they’re not getting all the nutrients their bodies need. But the cause isn’t known. 

“Soil pica” can be harmful.  Lead poisoning and parasites are a few of the dangers. 

The Dangers of Dirt Eating

Although geophagia has been practiced for centuries, that doesn’t mean it’s safe. There are many reasons that you should avoid eating dirt. Some of these dangers include:

Mineral deficiency. Geophagia has been linked to iron deficiencies. When you eat clay, your body can’t absorb iron as well. Clay can also keep your body from absorbing potassium and zinc. This may lead to a zinc deficiency

Toxic soil. Eating dirt can be dangerous because of what’s in it. Soil may contain heavy metals, human waste, parasites, and other harmful substances. 

Ascariasis. This is a condition common in children who eat dirt in Nigeria. It happens when they become infected with a parasite known as ascarid worms. These worms infect about 25% of the world's population. They can go unnoticed in adults. But when a child becomes infected, it can lead to intestinal blockage and cause complications. 

Managing Dirt Cravings

Some ways you can manage dirt-eating cravings include: 

  • Ask a friend to keep you accountable
  • Tell your doctor
  • Make sure you’re getting enough vitamins, iron, and other minerals
  • Find chewing alternatives like gum or mints 

When to Talk to Your Doctor

Consider talking to your doctor or a mental health professional if you have the urge to eat or have been eating dirt. If you feel like you have no control over this urge, a psychotherapist can help. They’ll help you find the cause.

Your doctor can help you figure out what nutrients you may be lacking in your diet. Sometimes, proper nutrition helps you overcome a strong urge to eat dirt. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

African Health Sciences: “Prevalence of geophagia and its contributing factors among pregnant women at Dr. George Mukhari Academic Hospital, Pretoria.”

American Pregnancy Association: “Pica Cravings During Pregnancy.”

Emerging Infectious Diseases: “Eating Dirt.”

Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine: “Geophagia: this history of earth-eating.”

King County Public Health: “Pica eating disorder.”

Nutrition Bulletin: “Geophagia: why do humans consume soil?”

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Geophagia in Man: Its Nature and Nutritional Effects.”

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