Why a Woman’s Diet Consists of Rocks on ABC’s “20/20”

While crunchy and earthy are not normal culinary descriptions for one’s favorite things to eat, Teresa Widener’s favorite snack crunches on her teeth as she eats rocks. This week’s episode of the cable TV show “20/20” spotlights Widener, the mother of two and a special needs teacher who says she likes the earthy flavor and crunchy feeling when she eats rocks.

According to Widener she does not wash them and sometimes sucks the dirt off the rocks she eats and other times she cracks the rocks into bite size pieces with a hammer.  Widener suffers from a behavioral and mental health condition called “pica.”  A clinical social worker and therapist, Dr Jordana Mansbacher, who holds a specialty in eating disorders to include pica, says patients who suffer from the condition will eat toilet paper, fabric, carpet, paper, wood, clothing, skin, and metal or just about anything.

Widener says she uses the rocks as an emotional crutch, but that the consumption of rocks also helps her anemic condition, as it helps replace the iron in her system. Why not just take a pill?  According to Dr. Mansbacher, the illness is fairly common among women, and even more so in pregnant women. He reveals that pregnant women tend to be anemic since the nutrients from the mother go straight to the fetus.  That is the reason pregnant women have cravings for things like ice which is rich in zinc, soil, and clay that are rich in iron.

The specialist reveals that the condition exists around the world, even in parts of the south.  He says not all women are pregnant with the condition and tells how unhealthy the consumption of soil and rocks is due to the fact that it can induce parasites as well as puncture and tear intestinal tissue and cause bleeding and infection in the body.

Widener is not pregnant, and she admits that she has been eating rocks for over twenty years now. Dr. Mansbacher suggests that women get blood tests to reveal if they have mineral or vitamin deficiencies.  Deficiencies are treatable with an alteration in the diet, along with supplements to counteract and correct the problem.

Pica is described as an appetite for substances that are non-nutritive like clay and chalk. For these actions to be considered an eating disorder, they must persist for more than one month and be done at an age when eating this type of objects  is considered inappropriate for human consumption.

There are varying degrees of pica.  It can be a cultural tradition, an acquired taste, or a neurological problem caused by a vitamin deficiency or chemical imbalance. The condition can lead to intoxication in children that can cause an impairment of physical as well as mental development. Additionally, it often becomes necessary to perform emergency surgery from intestinal obstructions and parasitosis.  Some life stresses that have been long considered as contributors to the condition include maternal deprivation, parental neglect, pregnancy, poverty, and unstructured family situations.