Turns out pregnant women aren't the only ones who eat dirt. A new study reveals a surprising incidence of pica—craving and consuming nonfood substances—among men. Conducted in Madagascar, where pica is common, the research is the first to identify a population where the practice is highly prevalent among men, the scientists say.
In fact, the men in the study ate nonfood items at least as much as pregnant women and adolescents, whom previous case studies had shown to be the main pica practitioners. So why this sudden appearance of pica-practicing men?
"My guess, which is not substantiated, is that prior research study designs may have ignored men in their study samples as an artifact of studying pregnant women," said study author Christopher Golden, an eco-epidemiologist and National Geographic Society Conservation Trust grantee. Pica researcher Laura Beatriz López, nutrition director at the University of Buenos Aires, agreed.
"Traditionally studies of geophagy [eating earth] and pica have focused on describing the prevalence in children and pregnant women," López wrote in an email, which has been translated from Spanish. "Personally, I think the work is pioneering," she said, because it reveals "such a high prevalence of pica in men and also found no significant differences with women."
"We've seen more attention on men and eating disorders over the last few years," Albers said. "This study notes the importance of further research on men and pica and making sure they are adequately represented in the sample." Study co-author Golden said he isn't quite ready to label pica an eating disorder, since it's not yet clear whether the practice is harmful. But he agreed that more pica research is needed, especially among men.
The new Madagascar study may be a big step in that direction. To Golden, the discovery "opens up this whole field of research, to have fellow researchers acknowledge both men and women in their studies."