Geophagy, or eating dirt, is actually pretty common around the world, and researchers think they've figured out why. Consuming dirt can protect the stomach against toxins, parasites and pathogens, leading those who are at the most risk for toxins, parasites and pathogens to eat it. Though there are other hypotheses — some say it's because people who eat dirt have a mineral deficiency, so they crave dirt, or they're simply hungry and would eat anything — research suggests that it's probably the protection hypothesis. This is because most people who eat or crave dirt are either in the early stages of pregnancy or are pre-adolescent children, both groups that are at high risk for parasites and pathogens.
More facts about geophagy:
- Geophagy isn't just limited to developing countries. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, eating dirt was associated with poor American Southerners, who reportedly ate clay to improve sexual performance or to ease childbirth.
- Another reason people eat dirt is because of a disorder called pica. Those with pica have a strong desire to eat non-food substances, including metal, paper, batteries, lip balm or even feces.
- Though geophagy has its benefits, it comes with some risks as well, including worm infestations, bacterial infections, potential damage to the teeth and even intestinal blockages. In societies that eat dirt traditionally, the dirt or clay is usually baked to minimize the risk of worms or bacteria.