Pregnancy and PICA- How to Manage PICA during Pregnancy

PICA syndrome: Experiencing abnormal pregnancy food cravings

Cravings are common during pregnancy. Expecting mothers often crave pickles, ice cream, chocolates or spicy foods. However, being aware of unusual cravings is also important. Broadly defined as PICA, these cravings are targeted towards non-nutritive and even strange items. Pregnant women experiencing PICA often develop an appetite for paper, hair, metal, paint, glass or even soil. However, this is not abnormal and should be managed wisely. Read on to know more about PICA syndrome during pregnancy.

What is PICA syndrome?

PICA is essentially a strong compulsion that a pregnant woman feels, for consuming unsuitable substances, with minimal or no nutritional value. It means that you may want to binge on dirt or clay (called geophagia), starch (called amylophagia), ice (called pagophagia) or other substances such as chalk, burnt matches, soot, charcoal, cigarette ashes, etc. In India, PICA is more prevalent among pregnant women in rural areas.

What causes PICA syndrome during pregnancy?

The exact cause of PICA cravings during pregnancy is neither well-understood, nor well-established. Nevertheless, several hypotheses have been proposed:

  • PICA is associated with the physical and hormonal changes that take place during pregnancy.
  • Deficiency of essential nutrients such as iron, calcium, zinc, copper, etc. is also considered to be among the causes, leading to the consumption of non-edible substances that contain these nutrients. Consumption of inedible substances can however reduce a woman’s ability to consume nutritious food, thereby leading to nutritional inadequacies. This can create a relentless cycle of PICA syndrome.
  • It is also believed that ingestion of non-food substances might relieve morning sickness symptoms, making PICA during pregnancy a common behaviour.

What are the consequences of PICA syndrome during pregnancy?

When left untreated, this eating disorder can harm both the mother as well as the foetus.

  • Ingestion of non-food substances displaces essential nutrients in the diet, paving the way for malnutrition.
  • Also, the consumption of starch in excessive amounts can be detrimental during pregnancy, as it contributes to obesity. This can be riskier in case of those women who are diabetic.
  • The non-food substances ingested may contain toxic compounds and contaminants such as heavy metals, which might interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients.
  • Moreover, over-consumption of clay, soil, starch, etc. may cause intestinal obstruction. This eating disorder, when uncontrolled, can lead to preterm labour (delivery before the due date), mercury and lead poisoning, high or low potassium levels in the body, and severe nutritional complications such as iron deficiency.

How to manage PICA during pregnancy?

are a few tricks and tips to help manage your PICA cravings during pregnancy.

  • Firstly, it is important to inform your caregiver about any unusual craving, so that they know what to do.
  • Ask your healthcare provider if there is a need for periodic monitoring of your iron and other micronutrient status.
  • Ensuring adequate supplementation of micronutrients like iron, calcium, and zinc, is crucial, since a deficiency might cause PICA. Make sure your diet includes foods such as milk and milk products, green leafy vegetables, millets such as ragi, meat, poultry, fish, whole grain cereals, pulses, and legumes.
  • Follow a balanced diet and make healthy food choices during pregnancy so that there are no glitches in the nutritional profile.

All in all, remember that PICA is commonly observed in women all over the world, and India is no exception. Make sure you are aware of all your food and non-food cravings, and keep your doctor and health provider informed. Make sure your meals include foods from all major food groups, so that you don’t miss out on any macro or micronutrient. Ask your doctor if you need to take any supplements. Remember, how you tackle this disorder during pregnancy will determine the health of your baby.