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You probably expected that pregnancy would bring lots of strange food cravings (sweet pickles and granola anyone?), but what if you’re craving nonfood items like ice chips or even soap? This can happen, and it’s not uncommon among pregnant women.

Craving or eating things that aren’t food is called pica. This condition can happen to anyone — whether they’re pregnant or not — but is more common during pregnancy.

So why would a pregnant woman (or anyone) want to eat something that isn’t food?

Here’s more on pica and what to do if you have it.

Pica is an eating disorder. It may be diagnosed if you constantly eat nonfood items for at least 1 month.

It might also be a sign that something in your body is out of balance. Some research has found that pica may be connected to anemia, including iron deficiency anemia. It can occur at any stage of pregnancy but often appears in the first trimester.

Some of the things that people with pica may eat (or suck on, in some cases) include:

  • ice
  • paper
  • clay
  • dirt
  • soap
  • chalk
  • baby powder
  • ash
  • cornstarch
  • uncooked rice
  • uncooked grains
  • hair
  • string
  • cloth
  • paint chips
  • glue
  • metal
  • pebbles

If you have pica, you’ll normally still eat regular food. You’ll just also crave one or more nonfood items. A craving for ice is known as pagophagia. Meanwhile, cravings for earth, such as dirt or pebbles, are known as geophagia, while cravings for raw starches like rice are known as amylophagia.

You can develop pica for many reasons. Some of its causes might explain why it’s more common in pregnant women.

One reason why your body might crave nonfood items is that you’re not getting adequate nutrient intake.

During pregnancy, the foods you eat supply your own needs, as well as those of your growing baby. Your body needs proper nutrition to support your pregnancy.

Sometimes the increased demands of pregnancy may lead to a nutrient deficiency. This issue may also arise if nausea and vomiting limit the amount of nutrients you’re taking in.

A deficiency in important minerals like iron and zinc may trigger pica. If you’re pregnant, you’re at a higher risk of anemia from not getting enough iron or B vitamins. This may also cause pica.

One study in 286 pregnant women in Ghana noted that pregnant women most at risk of pica may include those who have:

  • poor nutrition or nutrient deficiencies
  • a history of or cultural exposure to eating nonfood items, such as eating clay as medicine in some cultures

The study also found that 47.5 percent of the women had some form of pica during pregnancy. The most common items consumed were white clay and ice.

The researchers noted that some participants believed that the white clay and ice had nutritional value. They also observed that many participants sought the nonfood items because they were appealing and felt the scent or taste helped alleviate their nausea.

Pica itself is not always harmful, but addressing its underlying causes can help prevent its associated risks.

If you’re just craving ice and enjoy munching on ice chips, this isn’t particularly risky for you and your baby (as long as you don’t chip a tooth!). However, the potential underlying cause of craving ice in pica — like anemia — might be harmful to you and your baby.

It’s important to note that sometimes pica and nonfood cravings can be directly harmful to your health if you’re eating other nonfood things.

For example, eating nonfood items like paper, clay, or dirt can make you ill. They might also make you feel full, leading you to not eat enough of the nutritious food you and your baby need.

In serious cases, pica can lead to other health complications like infections, stomach irritation, a blockage in your digestive tract, vomiting, and weight loss. You may also eat toxic things.

If you think you have pica, let your OB-GYN know right away — even if the only nonfood thing you crave is ice. They can help ensure that you and your baby are getting the right nutrients for healthy growth and development.

If you’re craving other nonfood things, ask them about how to treat the issue.

No test can determine whether your unusual cravings are due to pica. Instead, your OB-GYN will review your medical history and potentially order blood tests to help determine whether you have low levels of certain vitamins and minerals.

Your OB might also recommend taking a different prenatal vitamin and eating a more balanced diet. If you’re experiencing nausea and vomiting, nutritional food replacement drinks might be a good temporary fix until your appetite returns.

If you still have cravings for things that aren’t food, let your healthcare provider know. Talking to a nutritionist about the right pregnancy diet plan for you may likewise help.

In most cases, pregnancy pica goes away on its own once deficiencies are addressed or after you give birth to your little one.

Pica happens when you get unusual cravings to eat things that aren’t food, such as ice or clay. It may be a sign of inadequate nutritional intake.

Pica is more common in pregnant women because your body has increased nutritional needs during pregnancy. It’s easier to have a deficiency if you aren’t eating the right kinds of food or have nausea and can’t eat much.

This eating condition can harm your health depending on what you’re eating — and how much of it. The underlying cause of your cravings for nonfood items may also harm you and your baby.

In most cases, pica in pregnant women goes away on its own. Improving your nutritional intake or taking a prenatal vitamin can help. Let your OB-GYN know right away if you think you might have pica.