Is it crazy to eat clay?

Dear Cecil:

I'm sure you've never been asked this before but is it okay to eat clay? I'm a student at the Art Institute and I've been eating clay for four years. You are probably not familar with the process of clay so I will briefly explain. When the clay is completely dry but has not been fired it's called greenware. That's when I eat it. But I once ate a whole teacup after it had been fired (bisqueware). I don't have anyone to ask because they'll think I'm crazy. Please give me an answer.

Cecil replies:

No question, telling people you eat teacups does have a way of bringing conversation to a halt. But be bold. Say to yourself, it’s not weird, it’s performance art. What you’ve got is a form of pica, the craving to eat the inedible or to eat normal food in obsessive quantities. If you think teacups are a little over the top, try toilet air-freshener blocks, which one lost soul used to consume at the rate of one or two a week.

Some cravings are so common they have names of their own, such as pagophagia, a hankering for ice (one sufferer admitted to a five-tray-a-day habit supplemented by bags of crushed ice obtained at convenience stores); xylophagia, a yen for wood toothpicks; coniophagia, a lust for dust from venetian blinds; and my personal favorite, gooberphagia, pathological consumption of peanuts. Other cravings include ten bunches of celery a day, a peppermint Life Saver every five minutes, salad croutons by the handful, coal, foam rubber, and worse. One woman, a nonsmoker, reportedly “would burn cigarettes to obtain the ashes” and when her husband smoked would follow him with cupped hand to catch the ashes as they fell.

The particular condition you’ve got is called geophagia, the desire to eat clay or dirt. It’s common among poor rural black women, especially during pregnancy — in fact, during the 19th century dirt- and clay-eating was called cachexia africana. It’s so common that one writer (R. Reid, Medical Anthropology, 1992) thinks we should reassess our whole attitude about it, the idea evidently being that if one person does it it’s sick but if thousands do it it’s an affirming cultural experience, possibly even conferring some medical benefit, although Lord knows what. Incidentally, many geophages are switching to laundry starch, something to think about if your taste for teacups begins to flag.

Geophagia and pica in general are often associated with iron-deficiency anemia. No one knows whether anemia is a cause or an effect, but it’s worth looking into in your case, since one can’t help thinking that art students as a class could stand a little more, you know, red meat. According to the medical literature, a lot of pica sufferers, including pregnant women with pickles-and-ice-cream-type cravings, have been cured by giving them iron supplements.

Then again, maybe you just like clay. Admittedly the stuff isn’t as weird as the match heads and such that some folks go in for. And given that kaolin, a type of clay, is the active ingredient of the well-known childhood remedy Kaopectate, I’ll venture to say you don’t suffer much from diarrhea. Still, a fair number of clay-eaters have shown up in emergency rooms with obstructed or even perforated intestines, the latter problem being one you put yourself at particular risk for if you start eating fired teacups in quantity. It’s all very well to obsess, but let’s not get carried away.

Send questions to Cecil via

Comment on this Column