About Soil eating – pica and its consequences and prevention

About Soil eating – pica and its consequences and prevention

Is your child eating soil and you are concerned about how to stop this soil eating habit? So are many parents as you for the same problem.

Children learn to crawl and walk, they can move around and they go and explore the surroundings. Unknowingly they try to taste the things they should not. Soil is one of such things they try to eat.

Here we are going to discuss this soil eating habit and then we will highlight its consequences and methods to prevent them.

What is Pica?

To know about soil eating first you need to know about a condition called ‘Pica’. 

Pica is a strong urge to eat things that are non edible. According to substances to which there is urge Pica is classified as as follows:

  • Pagophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge of eating ice.
  • Trichophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat hair.
  • Xylophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat paper.
  • Acuphagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat sharp objects.
  • Metallophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat metal objects.
  • Lithophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat stones.
  • Geophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat soil.
  • Hyalophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat glass.
  • Coprophagia is a type of pica in which there is a strong urge to eat feces.

As we see in above all types there are non nutritive and non edible substances involved in the process. There is a strong urge to eat them.

The DSM-5 describes four criteria that must be met for a person to be diagnosed with pica:

  1. Person must have been eating non-nutritive nonfoods for at least one month.
  2. This eating must be considered abnormal for the person’s stage of development.
  3. Eating these substances cannot be associated with a cultural practice that is considered normal in the social context of the individual.
  4. For people who currently have a medical condition (e.g.: pregnancy) or a mental disorder (e.g.: autism spectrum disorder), the action of eating non-nutritive nonfoods should only be considered pica if it is dangerous and requires extra medical investigation or treatment on top of what they are already receiving for their pre-existing condition.

The above criterias are to be fulfilled for the condition to be called as pica.

Here we are going to talk about soil eating and stone eating as they are somewhat related.

About soil eating

Soil is usually considered as a non nutritive and non edible object. Though it is available in plenty and everywhere we don’t eat that.

As the human body cannot digest soil and neither does it provide any nutrition to human ate directly we avoid it.

There are some conditions in which you and your children may get an urge to soil and it is called geophagia, a type of pica.

Many times this condition is found particularly in children and sometimes in adults in some conditions as you notice.

Soil eatingEven in adults 

Yes you may be amazed but you read it right.

Some adults do have an urge to eat soil and they do show this behaviour of pica though less commonly as compared to children.

In conditions like pregnancy ladies may get a strong urge to eat soil and chalks as you may have experienced.

Other types of pica  like trichophagia are found in people with schizophrenia and obsessive compulsive disease but geophagia can be found in normal people also.

Causes of soil eating

Let us bring forward causes of soil eating for you. 

Yet there is very less knowledge about this condition and there are some theories which postulate the causes of soil eating.

Some causes have proven relationships, some are yet to be proven. Let us discuss them one by one.

Causes of soil eating:

  • Anemia
  • Increased iron demand
  • OCD
  • Schizophrenia
  • Cultural practices
  • Malnutrition
  • Constipation


Anemic children i.e. children with low haemoglobin are more likely to show a habit of soil eating.

Correction and treatment of this condition may lead to the urge to eat soil.

The geophagia occurring more frequently in anemic children lead to the hypothesis that low haemoglobin level(anemia) produces an urge to eat soil.

Increased iron demand

In anemia haemoglobin levels are low and it leads to increased demand of iron from the body. This increased demand of iron produces a strong urge to eat soil.

Indeed when provided iron supplement this urge may decrease to a great extent.

Not only anemia but also conditions like pregnancy and toddlers and children where more iron is needed normally this habit may be found.

In pregnancy this urge is considered as normal unless it needs medical attention or proves to be harmful for health.


Obsessive compulsive disease is a condition in which there is a strong urge to do something. There is an obsession to do that thing and that obsession cannot be controlled.

The person with OCD has an obsession and tends to do the things he/she is obsessed with. This is considered a normal trait to a limit but when it exceeds the normal it is considered as a mental illness and diagnosed as OCD.

Some of these people may be obsessed with soil eating.


Schizophrenia is a condition where a person is showing behaviour which is not related to reality. 

In this condition a person behaves irrelevant to the surrounding condition and may show abnormal behaviours that are deviant from normal society.

Cultural practices

As we know eating habits change from culture to culture. A behaviour that is considered as abnormal may be pretty normal somewhere else.

In some tribes and some cultures in Africa soil eating is culturally accepted practice. It is considered a normal thing.

They may eat soil as they think it provides nutrition and medicinal properties or they may eat soil as guided by religion.

Please note that sometimes culturally accepted practices may lead to harmful effects on the health of individuals.


Habit of soil eating is more commonly found in children who are malnourished. 

Children whose diet lacks essential components like minerals and vitamins are more likely to show behavior of soil eating.

Consequences of soil eating

Soil eating can be a symptom of health or mental health problems and it can itself lead to various health problems. 

We will list those conditions caused by soil eating and then we will explain them one by one for you. Keep reading further as it will help you with adding some value to your knowledge:

  • Gastro-enteritis
  • Malnutrition
  • Worm infestation
  • Heavy metal poisoning
  • Iron deficiency anemia


Gastro-enteritis is an infection of the intestine. It occurs because of virus, bacteria, parasites or fungus that enters the intestine through the mouth.

It is more common in people who have a habit of soil eating. 

The symptoms caused by gastro-enteritis are vomiting, loose motions, abdominal pain, fever and weight loss in chronic cases.

Gastro-enteritis can be severe leading to dehydration needing treatment with indoor admision.


Soil eating habits cause malnutrition in multiple ways and soil eating habits are more commonly found in children who are malnourished.

Those who have soil eating habits may have infections in the intestine and they cannot absorb nutrients from diet in an adequate amount, leading to malnutrition.

Soil contains factors that combine with nutrients in the diet and that prevents absorption of these nutrients from the diet.

Due to these factors even after adequate diet the person with soil eating habits may be malnourished or may experience deficiency of specific nutrients.

Worm infestations

Worms are parasites that enter the mouth in egg form with soil and can infect the intestine.

Literally thousands to millions of eggs of these worms can gain access to your intestine if you eat soil.

They stay in your intestine and they absorb nutrients from them making you malnourished.

Additionally they injure your mucosa ie inner layer of the intestine and you may lose blood may be visible or invisible in stool. This can make you anemic and anemia again increases soil eating tendencies as we discussed earlier.

Heavy metal poisoning

Soil may contain pollutants and those may go to the intestine and be absorbed in blood if you have soil eating habits.

Heavy metal once in the system is usually difficult to remove and they remain there for a very long period.

They may have many effects on your body like anemia, mental retardation, and other illnesses as you may know.

Many children who have soil eating habits have symptoms of lead poisoning if soil polluted with lead.

Iron deficiency anemia

Soil eating can cause anemia in multiple ways.

Soil contains factors that combine with iron in food and it can lead to failure of absorption of iron from the food causing iron deficiency. Iron deficiency leads to iron deficiency anemia.

You can be affected by intestinal infection by parasites that infect the intestine. They inhibit absorption of iron making you suffer from iron deficiency anemia.


Constipation is likely to be more common for people with soil eating habits. The symptoms of constipation are relieved when you stop eating soil.

How to stop soil eating?

As this problem is common in children and adults alike but the management in children and adults is different. We will discuss approaches to each age group separately here so it will be helpful for you.

In children

Children who have soil eating habits suffer multiple of its consequences so it should be stopped.

Following are the steps to achieve this goal:

Tell ThemTell them the risk involved in soil eating
PunishmentsDo not beat or punish them for this habit
RewardReward them with gifts when they do not eat soil. It is Positive reinforcement.
AdviceFollow your pediatrician’s advice
SupplimentsIron suppliments may help to some extent
PsychiatristVisit to your psychiatrist in child guidance clinic may help
DietGive them balanced diet
How to stop soil eating in children

Tell them

You should be gentle with children. They are very curious about everything and they ask multiple questions.

You should communicate with them in a way they understand you. 

You should tell them why eating soil is a bad habit and make them aware about it.

No punishments

Small children should not be punished or they develop rebellion attitudes and will not follow your advice.

Punishment stops communication and makes it impossible for children to communicate.

Positive reinforcement

If your child does not eat soil you should give him some gift. The good behavior should be encouraged and appreciated. This appreciation automatically pushes them away from bad habits.

Encourage your children with positive reinforcement and you will see the magical effect of this approach. This approach is much more effective than punishments.

Follow your pediatrician’s advice

Soil eating can be a symptom of disease or deficiency or it may already lead to some deficiency or disease.

Your child may need some tests to diagnose those conditions and you need medical advice for that.

Your pediatrician may help you in this regard. Follow your pediatrician’s advice or meet us in person at the clinic.

Iron supplements

As we have discussed in earlier paragraphs that iron deficiency may lead to soil eating behavior your child may need iron supplements. 

Your pediatrician may prescribe you the same if needed.

Child guidance clinic

As we have discussed earlier that apart from normal children, those with mental illness may show soil eating behavior. It may harm them.

Psychiatrists at child guidance clinics may help you in this regard. The child may need multiple sessions of visit to the child guidance clinic.

Balanced diet

To stop soil eating habits you should encourage a balanced diet in children. Those children who have a picky eating habit may get benefited with positive reinforcements.

Soil eating Adults

Following steps will help to prevent soil eating in adults:

  • Reach for support
  • Medical advice
  • Psychiatrist’s visit
  • Chewing eating similar food
  • Supplements
  • Positive reinforcements

Reach for support

Some of those adults who have soil eating habits may be shy of this behavior and they feel difficulty revealing this problem to others.

If you are suffering from any such urge you should talk to your near and dear ones. If you find any of your close relatives or friends suffering from such problems you should support them mentally and emotionally.

Medical advice

As we discussed earlier people with some diseases and deficiency may have this soil eating problem they should get medical advice in this regard.

Your physician can guide you to find the cause of this habit and treating its consequences.

Psychiatrist’s visit

As you know from the above discussion that people with mental problems like OCD and schizophrenia may show soil eating behavior, you can help them.

These people usually do not have insight that they have any problem. You should help them to visit a psychiatrist and get treated.

Chewing eating similar food

In some people this strategy may help to reduce the urge for soil. Foods like candy may be used for chewing and eating and it may help to reduce the tendency to eat soil.


Your physician will guide you to diagnose if you have any deficiency and whether you need to be treated for that. 

Your physician may prescribe you iron and other supplements as needed in this condition.

Positive reinforcements

Like in children positive reinforcements may help adults too. You can help your near and dear ones within strategy.

You may like to read further about vaccination.

You can read about picky eating disorders.

<span class="has-inline-color has-luminous-vivid-orange-color">Dr Yatin Bhole MBBS DCh DNB</span>
Dr Yatin Bhole MBBS DCh DNB

This article was written by Dr Yatin Bhole who is practicing Pediatrician at Bhole Children Clinic, Ravet. This post is for general information and before applying it on yourself, you should meet your doctor or meet us in person.

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