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.

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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
  • boredom
  • enjoying the soil’s salty taste


Pica is most common in children, pregnant people, and people with an intellectual impairment. It is an eating disorder that causes people to eat things that are not food. This may include the following:

  • dirt
  • clay
  • raw starch
  • ice
  • hair
  • cigarette ash
  • paper
  • eggshells

Factors such as stress, child neglect, and maternal deprivations may play a role in the development of pica among children.

Nutrient deficiencies

Deficiencies in iron and zinc may play a role in why some people eat dirt.

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 reasons

Other risk factors for pica in general may include the following:

  • stress
  • cultural influences
  • learned behavior
  • a mental health condition
  • child neglect or abuse
  • epilepsy
  • family dysfunction

A 2016 study suggestes that geophagia may also occur as a way for people to reassert their identity in a foreign country. The authors suggest it may relate to a lack of, or the expense of, certain foods.

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.

A 2022 review suggests that eating dirt may also provide a distraction or relief from pain and distress, particularly related to gastrointestinal issues. However, the review’s authors stress that the risks of geophagia outweigh the potential benefits.

Pica is a major cause of anemia and lead poisoning. A 2020 article warned of harmful effects on the fetus when pregnant people ate clay from a particular part of Ghana. The clay contained toxic heavy metals including arsenic, lead, and nickel.

A 2022 review concluded that more research is necessary to determine whether eating a particular type of dirt could be toxic or beneficial.

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.

Geophagia can cause a range of health complications due to the many potential toxic substances in dirt. During pregnancy, eating dirt may also place the fetus at risk.

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.

Eating dirt can provide a distraction or relief from pain and distress. However, it also poses risks to health, including accidental ingestion of parasites and heavy metal toxicity.

A person with geophagia should speak with a doctor to undergo tests for nutrient deficiencies and discuss management strategies to cope with their cravings.