September 2, 2014

Pregnancy Cravings for Clay, Paper, Ice Found to Be Linked to Low Iron Levels, Study Finds

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Pregnant women are eating couch stuffing, baking soda, ice, toilet paper and other non-food items — but why?  In a recent study, Cornell researchers attempted to answer this puzzle, finding that this active craving and consumption behavior, known as Pica, is linked to low iron levels.

The study examined the progress of 158 pregnant teenagers, ranging from ages 13 to 18, in Rochester, New York, during the course of their pregnancies. The researchers assessed maternal iron status using hemoglobin and other indicators throughout the women’s pregnancies.

The researchers also periodically asked the adolescents whether they engaged in any Pica behavior during their pregnancies.

Among these teens, the overall prevalence of Pica was 46 percent. Additionally, those with lower iron levels tended to have higher levels of Pica.

“In general, this is not a calorically deficient population, and many of the adolescents studied were overweight or obese even before pregnancy,” said Prof. Kimberly O’Brien, nutritional sciences. “However, many of these teens are iron deficient. About 30 percent are anemic, and a quarter of their babies at birth are anemic.”

There are three possible explanations for this association between Pica behavior and iron deficiency, according to Sera Young, a research scientist in nutritional sciences.

The first hypothesis suggests that a deficiency in iron or another micronutrient might somehow trigger these cravings through imbalances in brain chemistry.

Alternatively, Young said, consumption of the non-food items could cause iron and other micronutrients to be absorbed less readily by the body, causing an iron deficiency. This theory suggests that items act like a sponge, taking in the micronutrients and therefore preventing its proper usage in the necessary tissues.

“If you think about a clay mask on your face, for example, that will draw out the toxins,” Young said. “So you’d think that [eating items like clay] would also cause some of these micronutrients to be absorbed less readily than they would be without the presence of clay.”

The third explanation is that there is an unknown factor causing the observation, according to Young.

“Everyone was surprised that the prevalence [of Pica] was this high. Nearly half of these adolescents engaged in some Pica behavior,” Young said. “Pica is often thought of as something exotic, and yet this is happening literally in our own backyard.”

Donna Alberico / The New York TimesIron ladies | A study of 158 pregnant teenagers found that women who were craving non-food items were also deficient in iron, which could affect the health of their children.