Geophagia is the official term for craving and eating dirt, including earth, soil, or clay. Eating dirt may relieve gastrointestinal pain for some people, but it can also cause health problems such as anemia and lead poisoning.
Geophagia is a type of pica, a condition in which people regularly and deliberately eat nonfood items. People may crave dirt due to nutritional deficiencies, pregnancy, cultural customs, or other reasons.
While people may consume some nutrients when eating dirt, this habit also increases a person’s risk of toxicity, such as from heavy metals.
This article explains what causes geophagia, the potential benefits and risks, how to manage cravings, and when to speak with a doctor.
The following factors may cause a person to develop geophagia.
People may eat dirt due to pregnancy. In a 2017 South African study, 54% of 597 pregnant people experienced geophagia. Three-quarters of that group ate more than 3 teaspoons of soil daily.
Some of the reasons these people gave for eating the soil included:
- craving the soil’s taste, texture, and smell
- a belief that the soil acted as an iron supplement, improving their and the baby’s health
- relieving pregnancy-related heartburn and morning sickness
- enjoying the soil’s salty taste
Deficiencies in iron and zinc
A 2023 study of children from Sri Lanka suggested that pica could indicate a zinc deficiency because the average zinc levels in the children with pica were significantly lower than the average zinc levels in the group without pica.
Other risk factors for pica in general
- cultural influences
- learned behavior
- a mental health condition
- child neglect or abuse
- family dysfunction
One theory suggests that pica occurs during pregnancy and childhood — the most vulnerable stages of development — as a protection against harmful toxins.
The idea is that the dirt binds to toxic substances to help the digestive system get rid of them and prevent the child or pregnant adult from absorbing them.
However, further modern research is necessary to determine whether there is any truth to this theory and whether it can apply specifically to geophagia as well as general pica.
Pica is a major cause of anemia and lead poisoning. A
The researchers highlighted that conflicting viewpoints remain about whether geophagy is beneficial or harmful.
Geophagia may also lead to the following complications:
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), people who have any form of pica, including geophagia, should undergo tests for nutritional deficiencies.
Once a person corrects any deficiencies, such as by taking iron or zinc supplements, they may stop experiencing geophagia.
However, if correcting nutrient deficiencies does not affect cravings, people can discuss appropriate behavioral interventions with their doctor.
NEDA highlights that distraction and reward techniques may be an effective management strategy for some people who crave and eat dirt.
If a person knows someone who is eating dirt, or they are eating dirt themselves, it is important that they consult with a healthcare professional.
A doctor can help someone find out if their cravings are due to nutritional deficiencies and learn whether they are experiencing toxicity from harmful substances in the dirt, including heavy metals like lead.
People may eat dirt for a range of reasons, including cravings during pregnancy, cultural influences, or nutritional deficiencies.
A person with geophagia should speak with a doctor to undergo tests for nutrient deficiencies and discuss management strategies to cope with their cravings.