What It Really Means When You Want To Eat Chalk

While it may not sound the most appetizing, some people might find themselves craving — and actually eating — chalk. It's a symptom of pica, a rare eating disorder that involves consuming items that are not typically food and do not provide nutritional value, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). In addition to chalk, other substances people with pica may crave or eat include hair, dirt, soil, soap, paint chips, cloth, paper, clay, wool, charcoal, ash, starch, or ice.

Pica is more common in children than adults (via MedlinePlus). The condition typically occurs with other mental health disorders like autism spectrum disorder or schizophrenia, or with an intellectual disability. Pica can also occur during pregnancy. It's thought that nutritional deficiencies, such as iron and zinc, likely play a role in triggering pica in these individuals and the cravings are a sign that the body is trying to correct it. In most cases, treating the deficiency will also resolve the cravings.

Warning signs of pica and how it's treated

In order to be diagnosed with pica, an individual needs to have a pattern of eating non-food items devoid of nutritional value for at least one month. According to NEDA, children under the age of 2 should not be diagnosed with pica, since exploring their environment by putting items in their mouth is a normal part of development. Depending on which substance was eaten and how much, other symptoms may include stomach pain, nausea, bloating, fatigue, behavioral problems, poor nutrition, and in some instances, lead poisoning.

Chalk in particular is not poisonous in small amounts, but a pattern of eating it can result in major health problems, including damage to the digestive system and internal organs (via Healthline). Complications include constipation, obstruction in the bowels, loss of appetite, difficulty eating regular foods, parasites, tooth damage or cavities, and lead poisoning. 

In some cases, pica will go away on its own, though treatment is often needed. Treatment for pica involves addressing nutritional deficiencies and any other health issues that arise from it, such as lead poisoning. Medications or behavioral interventions may also be used.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).