What Is Geophagy?

Category: Feeding Behavior.

Many people eat things that seem strange to most of us. Geophagy is the practice of eating earthy matter. As children, many of us have had the experience of eating dirt, whether on a dare or just for the thrill of it. This practice in some areas is not considered abhorrent behavior but perfectly natural and normal. However, among the civilized cultures, it is definitely seen as abnormal. There are men, women and children who have cravings for specific types of clay or dirt.

A variety of Macaws eating clay to help neutralize toxins in their food. © Brian Ralphs.

Why do they do it?

Why do people eat these substances is still under debate in medical circles. There are many that hold the viewpoint that it has something to do with mineral deficiencies. They cite the fact that this is seen as normal behavior in areas that are economically challenged that this is the only rational explanation. These are same people that are to quick to point to the other benefit of eating clay or dirt and that is its effectiveness as an anti-diarrheal. Still others claim that the aberration is largely psychosomatic.

A type of medical disease

Geophagy falls under the medical diagnosis of a disease called pica. While the disease presents itself mostly in children, some continue the practice into adulthood. In general, the disease is characterized by ingesting non-food items. People who have pica have been known to eat a variety of things besides the clay or dirt that someone who has geophagy eats. Included in the list of things that doctors have documented are light bulbs, plaster, paint chips, cigarette butts, wire, burnt matches, needles, string, paper, laundry starch, vinyl gloves, pebbles, hair, fecal matter, stone and sand.

Eating dirt helps to a) reduce the permeability of the gut wall and b) binds to toxins and pathogens, rendering them unabsorbable. © Evelyne Delbos and Sera Young.

Common among women and children

Geophagy is an eating disorder that is most often diagnosed in pregnant women and small children. Although it is most often seen in pre-industrial cultures and rural areas, it can be found in all socioeconomic spheres. While there is a stigma associated with this disorder, in the western and other cultures don’t view it as something that must be studied or cured.

Is it really normal?

The western medical profession categorizes this as a disease while in non-western cultures, it is considered merely adaptive behavior. There are some real health risks associated with this behavior. Chief among them is intestinal blockage that could also lead to a perforation or a tear in the walls. There is also the possibility of damaging the teeth, as although they are made for grinding, they weren’t meant to grind sharp objects that can be found in the clay or dirt that is eaten. Many people who present with geophagy are diagnosed only after they are hospitalized from poisoning or infections from a parasitic infestation.

Prehistoric evidence

Geophagy is not something that has presented itself with modern man. The prehistoric remains of a Homo habilis, an immediate predecessor of the homo sapiens, was found at Kalambo Falls in Zambia with calcium rich white clay next to the body. This is why many are not so sure that geophagy is a metal health issue or a disease at all. There are areas of the south in the US that has a red clay dirt with the same active ingredients as in a well known anti-diarrheal.

The debate is still ongoing

The controversy over whether geophagy is a disease or an adaptive means of gathering the required vitamins and minerals a body needs will likely wage on for decades. One thing is for sure, people will continue to eat dirt and clay. Medical science in the west treats this disorder as a mental defect. There is no set method of treatment and it is handled on an individual basis.

Unusual eating behavior: Coprophagy: eating fecal matter.

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