Pica -- craving and intentionally consuming nonfood substances, such as earth -- and amylophagy, eating raw starches -- are widespread among people around the world, including the U.S. Some 180 species of animals are also known to engage in pica, possibly to rid themselves of toxins.
A study appearing Oct. 17 in the online journal Public Library of Science One provides the first population-level data of pica in Madagascar. It is one of only a few studies to assess the consumption of earths, raw starches, chalk, ash and other nonfoods across men, women and children.
Pica has been documented throughout history; it was first referenced by Hippocrates in 400 B.C. Since then, there have been hundreds of ethnographic descriptions of pica and dozens of epidemiologic studies, mostly among pregnant women, with a few studies among children.
In contrast to prior studies, this one in northeastern Madagascar found a high prevalence of pica and amylophagy among men, with some 63 percent of adult males engaging in the behavior among the 760 participants from the Makira Protected Area. Also contrary to other findings, this survey, made in 2009, found no peak in pica and amylophagy among pregnant women, though only four pregnant women were sampled. Local taboos against talking about pregnancy prior to birth may have led to underreporting, according to the authors.
The findings for men and pregnant women in Madagascar "fly against much of what I know in terms of distribution" among members of a population, said Sera Young, a research scientist in Cornell University's Division of Nutritional Sciences and the paper's senior author. Young is also the author of the book, "Craving Earth: Understanding Pica -- the Urge to Eat Clay, Starch, Ice and Chalk" (2011).
Across the entire sample in the prior year, 53.4 percent engaged in geophagy, eating specific
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