Eating dirt to remedy starvation? Nope...

WARNING: The information here may describe or refer to real practices. But do not eat ordinary soil and distinct deposits like kaolin or ultisols even in a literal famine or starvation situation. Dirt can contain dangerous parasites (their eggs), harmful bacteria and other microorganisms, toxic minerals and humus compounds, feces remains, chemical waste, pesticides, etc. Eating earth or clay can cause severe reactions (diarrhea/vomiting), extended illness and painful ordeals, crippling impairments and infestations, neurological damage, cancer, kidney failure and DEATH. It has minimal to zero nourishment value and does not necessarily ease stomach emptiness as a nutritionally inert filler, since it may alternatively yield the experience of an unpleasant and traumatic gastrointestinal response.

Geophagia is the practice of eating earth or soil-like substrates such as clay or chalk. It occurs in non-human animals where it may be a normal or abnormal behaviour, and also in humans, most often in rural or preindustrial societies among children and pregnant women. Human geophagia may be related to pica, an eating disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) characterized by abnormal cravings for non-nutritive items.

Geophagia is nearly universal around the world in tribal and traditional rural societies (although apparently it has not been documented in Japan or Korea). In the ancient world, several writers noted the phenomenon of geophagia. Pliny is said to have noted the ingestion of soil on Lemnos, an island of Greece, and the use of the soils from this island was noted until the 14th century. The textbook of Hippocrates (460–377 BCE) mentions geophagia, and the famous medical textbook titled De Medicina edited by A. Cornelius Celsus (14–37 CE) seems to link anaemia to geophagia.

[...] Early explorers in the Americas noted the existence of geophagy amongst Native Americans ... In more recent times, according to Dixie's Forgotten People: the South's Poor Whites, geophagia was common among poor whites in the Southeastern United States in the 19th and early 20th centuries ...

In Africa, kaolin [...] is eaten for pleasure or to suppress hunger. Kaolin for human consumption is sold at most markets in Cameroon and is often flavoured with spices such as black pepper and cardamom. Consumption is greatest among women, especially during pregnancy. ... In Haiti, poor people are known to eat mud biscuits made from soil, salt, and vegetable shortening. These biscuits hold minimal nutritional value, but manage to keep the poor alive. However, long-term consumption of the biscuits is reported to cause stomach pains and malnutrition, and is not recommended by doctors. ... Bentonite clay is available worldwide as a digestive aid; kaolin is also widely used as a digestive aid and as the base for some medicines. Attapulgite, another type of clay, is an active ingredient in many anti-diarrheal medicines.

[...] Geophagia is widespread in the animal kingdom. Galen, the Greek philosopher and physician, was the first to record the use of clay by sick or injured animals in the second century AD. This type of geophagia has been documented in "many species of mammals, birds, reptiles, butterflies and isopods, especially among herbivores".

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Haiti’s poor resort to eating mud as prices rise

EXCERPT: It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.

Charlene, 16 with a 1-month-old son, has come to rely on a traditional Haitian remedy for hunger pangs: cookies made of dried yellow dirt from the country's central plateau.

The mud has long been prized by pregnant women and children here as an antacid and source of calcium. But in places like Cite Soleil, the oceanside slum where Charlene shares a two-room house with her baby, five siblings and two unemployed parents, cookies made of dirt, salt and vegetable shortening have become a regular meal.

"When my mother does not cook anything, I have to eat them three times a day," Dumas said. Her baby, named Woodson, lay still across her lap, looking even thinner than the 6 pounds, 3 ounces he weighed at birth. Though she likes their buttery, salty taste, Charlene said the cookies also give her stomach pains. "When I nurse, the baby sometimes seems colicky too," she said.

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The people who can't stop eating dirt

EXCERPT: The practice of geophagy – eating earth – is surprisingly common, and while in some parts of the world it is regarded as an eating disorder, in others it is actively encouraged. But why would people want to eat something that’s literally dirty?

[...] Not all dirt is created equal. Kaolin belongs to a specific group of clay minerals, and these seem to be the most popular when people crave a mouthful of earth. Clay is very good at binding to things, so when Monique talks about it calming gastric pains, it could be doing just that by binding with or blocking harmful toxins and pathogens in the digestive system.

Experiments with rats and observations of monkeys indicate that other animals may seek non-food substances to combat ingested poisons, and various traditional food preparation practices involve mixing food with clays to extract toxins and make it palatable. Acorns are generally unpleasant to eat, for example, but the traditional production of acorn bread in both California and Sardinia involves grinding the nuts up with clay that seems to reduce the concentration of unpalatable tannic acid they contain.

The second hypothesis is perhaps more intuitive: clay could provide nutrients that are not present in conventional food items. Anaemia is often associated with geophagy, so perhaps eating iron-rich soil is an instinctive attempt to remedy iron deficiency.

There’s also a suggestion that geophagy is a response to extreme hunger, or micronutrient deficiencies that make non-food items attractive. This hypothesis is non-adaptive, meaning it fits with the idea that eating earth is a negative behaviour with no benefits.

The first two hypotheses, on the other hand, suggest adaptive reasons for geophagy, and they go some way to explaining its distribution, too.

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Geophagia: the history of earth-eating

EXCERPT: . . . Humboldt described geophagia in great detail and asserted that hunger could in part explain this behaviour. In particular, he observed that dried earth was piled up in heaps to serve as a store during periods of famine. It is noteworthy that members of the Otomac tribe were selective, preferring a brand of fine red clay that seems similar to that consumed in South Africa.

In Africa, Livingstone later described safura, a disease of earth-eating among slaves in Zanzibar. Livingstone refuted poverty as a possible explanation after observing that wealthy people were also affected. The course of the disorder was described as invariably fatal. Similar reports from colonial physicians are discussed in great detail elsewhere. Here, the disorder was often viewed as a matter of great concern among plantation owners, in that slaves who were addicted to geophagia became progressively more lethargic and debilitated until they eventually died.

Plantation owners went so far as to have face masks fitted to prevent the slaves from eating earth. Similar habits developed among slaves in southern parts of North America, where geophagia was known as cachexia Africana; the disorder is still seen in Georgia and Louisiana. Finally, reports are available from India and the remainder of Asia.

All the concepts of geophagia—as psychiatric disorder, culturally sanctioned practice or sequel to famine—fall short of a satisfying explanation. The causation is certainly multifactorial; and clearly the practice of earth-eating has existed since the first medical texts were written. The descriptions do not allow simple categorization as a psychiatric disease.

Finally, geophagia is not confined to a particular cultural environment and is observed in the absence of hunger. Might it be an atavistic mode of behaviour, formerly invaluable when minerals and trace elements were scarce? Its re-emergence might then be triggered by events such as famine, cultural change or psychiatric disease.

A beautiful description of the latter can be found in Gabriel García Màrquez' novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, where he describes geophagia in a woman who is madly in love:

‘Rebecca got up in the middle of the night and ate handfuls of earth in the garden with a suicidal drive, weeping with pain and fury, chewing tender earthworms and chipping her teeth on snail shells’.

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