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Balanced Diets

by Daniel Mason

The purposeful ingestion of things not typically considered food is known today as pica, after the Latin word for magpie, a bird once held to have promiscuous tastes. It is a term of shifting boundaries. Some have used it to describe any indiscriminate eating, from the scavenging seen in some forms of mental illness to the calculated consumption of a Cessna 150 by French performance artist (and Guinness World Record Holder for Strangest Diet) “Monsieur Mangetout.” In its most common form, it consists of geophagy (the eating of earth), amylophagy (starch) or pagophagy (ice); but also trichophagy (hair), xylophagy (wood or paper), chalk and charcoal, detergent, baby powder, ash. Given that several of these substances, like ice, are consumed under quite ordinary circumstances, most descriptions of pica imply something capricious, uncontrollable, or mysterious. The craving might be so strong that cravers carry coolers of ice or clay in their purses. Migrants might ask their families to mail them clay from home. One seventy-seven-year-old woman in a case report from 1981 said that her craving for gymnastic chalk was invading her dreams.

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