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Cravings for baby powder, and more tales of pica

By Stacy Lipson:

Next time an urge for a Girl Scout cookie hits, you should count your blessings that a sugary snack is the only thing you're craving. Donna Lee's persistent craving was far more unusual: baby powder.

Every day for close to two decades, Lee would eat a handful (sometimes two) of Johnson & Johnson baby powder. “I kept a large container on stock,” said the 52-year-old who lives in Queens, N.Y. After breakfast, Lee would reach for her baby powder, which she kept on her nightstand near her bed. “I would sit on the side of my bed and just eat it.

“It felt comforting when I did it,” she says. “I would feel satisfied."

Lee struggled with pica, an eating disorder that's marked by odd cravings for non-food items, such as dirt, metal or chalk. It's lately been the subject of several episodes of TLC's "My Strange Addiction," which has featured people who eat toilet paper, household cleaner, soap, the insides of couch cushions and even glass.

Pica is usually diagnosed in infants and children, explains Dr. Greg Chasson, an assistant professor of psychology at Towson University in Baltimore County, Md. It's fairly common in little kids: Between 10 and 32 percent of children ages 1 to 6 try to eat stuff that isn't actually food, according to National Institute of Health statistics. Few studies exist that detail the rate of pica in adults, but it is often seen in pregnancy; Chasson points out that pregnancy is a natural time for the craving system to kick into gear, so it’s not surprising the system would go awry.

“We don’t really know what’s driving pica,” said Chasson. He says that pica is sometimes caused by a nutritional deficiency, such as iron or calcium, but sometimes, pica can happen in adults who just crave certain textures.

Though Lee has no recollection of craving baby powder before her 30s, an aunt told that she had showed signs of craving it as early as infancy. “I would put my little hand out towards her palm when she was putting the baby powder on,” said Lee.

Chasson said that in many cases, people with pica are ashamed by their behavior. That shame may keep some from seeking professional help – including Lee, who kept quiet about her baby powder fixation.

“I didn’t talk about it with anyone,” said Lee. “I definitely didn’t tell my doctor, or else he would have told me to stop.”

Consumption of non-food items can be dangerous, and complications of pica include bowel obstructions, bowel perforations and cutting of the intestines. The first line of treatment for pica is to rule out any nutritional deficiencies, Chasson says. If the patient doesn’t seem to have a nutritional deficiency, the next line of treatment used consists of behavior therapy, which analyzes the specific context in which the eating occurs and targets events surrounding the eating pattern.

Lee believes her case was rooted in a nutritional deficiency. In 2003, Lee started taking vitamins and supplements such as vitamin C, zinc and potassium. “Since taking the vitamins, the cravings went away,” said Lee. “The cravings never came back.”

What's the weirdest food -- or non-food -- that you've ever craved? Moms, did pica hit during pregnancy?

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