-- Randy Dotinga
MONDAY, June 6 (HealthDay News) -- While the notion of
deliberately eating dirt may be unappetizing to most people, the
practice has a long history and may actually be seen by some as
healthy, a new study finds.
The analysis of existing research on the issue finds that eating
dirt, or "geophagy," may protect the body against invaders such as
germs and parasites.
People have eaten dirt for thousands of years, at least, and
it's been reported in almost every country, according to report
lead author Sera Young, a researcher at Cornell University in
Ithaca, N.Y. In fact, geophagy has been reported on every inhabited
continent and in almost every country.
But why would people crave dirt in their diet? Is it for
nutrition? Because of hunger? Due to mental illness?
To find out, Young and her colleagues examined more than 480
cultural reports of dirt-eating and then looked for patterns.
They found that people eat dirt (typically boiled first) even
when there's plenty of food around, and they don't tend to eat
enough to make them full. As for nutrition, the most common form of
dirt eaten, a type of clay, isn't loaded with minerals. In fact,
ingested clay can impede the uptake of nutrients by the digestive
tract, the researchers found.
The researchers believe the best answer is that dirt protects
the body against parasites and pathogens. They point out that
geophagy is most common among women in early pregnancy, and
pre-adolescent children, and both of these categories of people are
especially vulnerable to parasites and germs.
Bolstering the theory is the fact that dirt-eating is most
common in tropical climes where foodborne pathogens are most
common, and people often seek out dirt for eating when they are in
some kind of gastrointestinal distress.
"We hope this paper stimulates [more] research," the study authors write. "More importantly, we hope readers agree that it is time to stop regarding geophagy as a bizarre, non-adaptive gustatory mistake. With these data, it is clear that geophagy is a widespread behavior in humans that occurs during both vulnerable life stages and when facing ecological conditions that require protection."
The study appears in the June issue of
The Quarterly Review of Biology.
For details about
pica, the eating of non-food things, try the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
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