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Encyclopedia > Geophagy

Geophagy is a practice of eating earthy substances such as clay, chalk, and laundry starch, often to augment a mineral-deficient diet. Image File history File links Circle-question-red. ... Image File history File links Unbalanced_scales. ... Image File history File links Broom_icon. ... The Gay Head cliffs in Marthas Vineyard are made almost entirely of clay. ... The Needles,situated on the Isle Of Wight, are part of the extensive Southern England Chalk Formation. ... Dietary minerals are the chemical elements required by living organisms, other than the four elements carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen which are present in common organic molecules. ... In nutrition, the diet is the sum of food consumed by a person or other organism. ...

The relative health benefits of geophagy are debated. Most scientists believe that it is only harmful, while others argue that there may be adaptive benefits to the practice, since humans and animal alike have engaged in it for thousands of years.

Like coprophagia, it may be dangerous because parasite eggs can be passed in animal feces. Baylisascaris eggs, for instance, are dropped millions at a time by raccoons and other wildlife. They can stay dormant for years, remaining viable even in extreme temperatures and drought. Some of these roundworm eggs may remain in the soil long after the feces have decomposed, and become active in the digestive tract upon being consumed. Children's predilection to engage in geophagia makes them more susceptible to worm infestations. Coprophagia is the consumption of feces, from the Greek copros (feces) and phagein (eat). ... A parasite is an organism that spends a significant portion of its life in or on the living tissue of a host organism and which causes harm to the host without immediately killing it. ... Horse feces Feces, faeces, or fæces (see spelling differences) is a waste product from an animals digestive tract expelled through the anus (or cloaca) during defecation. ... Baylisascaris is a genus of roundworms that infest more than fifty animal species. ... Type species Procyon lotor Linnaeus, 1758 Species Procyon cancrivorus Procyon insularis Procyon lotor This article is about genus Procyon. ... Classes Adenophorea    Subclass Enoplia    Subclass Chromadoria Secernentea    Subclass Rhabditia    Subclass Spiruria    Subclass Diplogasteria The roundworms or nematodes (Phylum Nematoda from Gr. ...

Other dangers associated with geophagia include damage to tooth enamel, the ingestion of a variety of bacteria, lead poisoning and intestinal obstruction. Phyla/Divisions Actinobacteria Aquificae Bacteroidetes/Chlorobi Chlamydiae/Verrucomicrobia Chloroflexi Chrysiogenetes Cyanobacteria Deferribacteres Deinococcus-Thermus Dictyoglomi Fibrobacteres/Acidobacteria Firmicutes Fusobacteria Gemmatimonadetes Nitrospirae Omnibacteria Planctomycetes Proteobacteria Spirochaetes Thermodesulfobacteria Thermomicrobia Thermotogae Bacteria (singular, bacterium) are a major group of living organisms. ... Lead poisoning is a medical condition, also known as saturnism, plumbism or painters colic, caused by increased blood lead levels. ...

There is a psychological hypothesis, which is centered around the craving ideas, reported by clay eaters. The researchers attention was directed mainly towards the pregnant and postpartum women and their emotional state. Geophagy was attributed to feelings of misery, homesickness, depression, and alienation.[1]

Geophagy is most often seen in rural or preindustrial societies among pregnant women and children. However, it is practiced by members of all races, social classes, ages, and sexes. Western medicine has long characterized geophagy as a pica, a type of eating disorder. In other parts of the world the practice is less stigmatized, and geophagy is not studied as a pathology but rather as an "adaptive behavior" that supplements the diet with essential nutrients or treats a disorder such as diarrhea.[2] A pregnant woman near the end of her term Pregnancy is the carrying of one or more offspring in an embryonal or fetal stage of development by female mammals, including humans, inside their bodies, between the stages of conception and birth. ... Image of a woman on the Pioneer plaque sent to outer space. ... {{Infobox_Disease | Name = Pica (disorder) | Image = | Caption = | DiseasesDB = 29704 | ICD10 = F50. ...

In some parts of the world, geophagia is a culturally sanctioned practice. In many parts of the developing world, earth intended for consumption is available for purchase.

In parts of Africa, rural United States, and villages in India clay consumption may be correlated with pregnancy as women eat clay to eliminate nausea, possibly because the clay coats the gastrointestinal tract and absorbs dangerous toxins. The clay may also provide critical calcium for fetal development (Vemeer). A world map showing the continent of Africa Africa is the worlds second-largest and second most-populous continent, after Asia. ... For other uses, see Nausea (disambiguation). ... Upper and Lower gastrointestinal tract The gastrointestinal tract (GI tract), also called the digestive tract, or the alimentary canal, is the system of organs within multicellular animals that takes in food, digests it to extract energy and nutrients, and expels the remaining waste. ... For a list of biologically injurious substances, including toxins and other materials, as well as their effects, see poison. ... General Name, Symbol, Number calcium, Ca, 20 Chemical series alkaline earth metals Group, Period, Block 2, 4, s Appearance silvery white Standard atomic weight 40. ... Fetal (U.S. English; Foetal UK English) development is the process in which a fetus (U.S. English; Foetus UK English) develops during gestation, from the times of conception until birth. ...

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, a substance found in clay in the Southern United States, is an active ingredient in many anti-diarrheal medicines.[3] Bentonite - USGS Bentonite is an absorbent aluminium phyllosilicate generally impure clay consisting mostly of montmorillonite, (Na,Ca)0. ... Kaolin Kaolinite (Aluminium Silicate Hydroxide) Kaolinite is a mineral with the chemical composition Al2Si2O5(OH)4. ... Palygorskite (also known as attapulgite) is a magnesium aluminum silicate from a type of clay soil common to the Southeastern United States. ...

Geophagy was also practiced by Native Americans who would eat earth with acorns and potatoes to neutralize potentially harmful alkaloids. Clay was used in the production of acorn bread. An independent origin and development of writing is counted among the many achievements and innovations of pre-Columbian American cultures. ... This article includes a list of works cited or a list of external links, but its sources remain unclear because it lacks in-text citations. ... For other uses, see Potato (disambiguation). ... Chemical structure of ephedrine, a phenethylamine alkaloid An alkaloid is, strictly speaking, a naturally occurring amine produced by a plant,[1] but amines produced by animals and fungi are also called alkaloids. ...

Geophagy has also been observed in birds. Notably, South American macaws have been observed at clay licks in South America by scientist Charles Munn, whilst Sulphur-crested Cockatoos have been observed ingesting clays in Papua New Guinea by Jared Diamond (Discover, 1998) as well as in Glenbrook in Blue Mountains of Australia by David W Cooper (Parrots Magazine, 2000). Pet birds are often permitted to ingest grit and bone, which they use not for nutrition but to store in their gizzards to aid in grinding the food they eat. Genera Ara Anodorhynchus Cyanopsitta Primolius Orthopsittaca Diopsittaca For other uses, see Macaw (disambiguation). ... Binomial name Cacatua galerita Latham, 1790 Australian Sulphur-crested Cockatoo range (in red) The Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Cacatua galerita, is one of the larger and more widespread of Australias cockatoos. ... Jared Mason Diamond (b. ... A panoramic view of the Blue Mountains The Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, are situated approximately 100 kilometres west of Sydney. ... The gizzard is an adapted stomach that is found in birds, earthworms, and other animals. ...

There is also evidence that supports the usefulness of the flora found in soil. Some have even suggested that it is useful, if not vital, in the establishment of healthy bacteria within the digestive tract, addressing the problems presented by Crohn's Disease and Leaky Gut Syndrome. Simplified schematic of an islands flora - all its plant species, highlighted in boxes. ... Crohns disease (also known as regional enteritis) is a chronic, episodic, inflammatory condition of the gastrointestinal tract characterized by transmural inflammation (affecting the entire wall of the involved bowel) and skip lesions (areas of inflammation with areas of normal lining in between). ... Leaky gut syndrome is a diagnostic entity popular in various branches of alternative medicine. ...


Classification and Diagnosis

The International Classification of Diseases includes geophagia among eating disorders (F50) as a variety of pica, the ingestion of non-foods. However, dirt can constitute a source of iron, although the bioavailability of such mineral has not been ascertained. For example, red clays often have iron in ferrous form, poorly absorbed by humans. The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (most commonly known by the abbreviation ICD) provides codes to classify diseases and a wide variety of signs, symptoms, abnormal findings, complaints, social circumstances and external causes of injury or disease. ... {{Infobox_Disease | Name = Pica (disorder) | Image = | Caption = | DiseasesDB = 29704 | ICD10 = F50. ... In pharmacology, bioavailability is used to describe the fraction of an administered dose of unchanged drug that reaches the systemic circulation, one of the principal pharmacokinetic properties of drugs. ...

It is also associated with iron deficiency (see Health A to Z, below)

Geophagia can be diagnosed, in absence of other evidence, by measuring the concentration of silica in feces.

Cultural explanations for geophagy

The cultural meaning of dirt may be another factor that contributed to making geophagy an unacceptable practice. Western cultures view dirt as being filthy, especially after Germ Theory arose. Dirt is similar to miasma, in that theory, which is a place where diseases are made and spread. Eating the miasma would be heretical, if not suicidal. Furthermore, one overarching theme of Western culture is a distancing from the natural world and progress toward technology and efficiency. This movement would render geophagy unacceptable to Westerners. Evidence for this comes from the English language, with phrases like "dirt cheap" and "dirty dog." In non-western cultures, soil is thought of as being a provider for the Earth to grow, and therefore it has nutrients which can be absorbed. It came from a/the god(s) and nourishes the crops which feed the culture. In these cultures, the acceptance is not anly seen by secluded tribes, but it is also accepted into the market and into families. The persistence of geophagy within a family or community can also partially be explained by a simple mother/daughter sharing mechanism. A crucial and sometimes hazardous part of rural communities is the act of giving birth. Without advanced medical knowledge, local customs become key to a healthy outcome. Geophagy enters the picture when daughters would "follow the diet of a woman that they knew had been successful at giving birth".[4] The maternal chain can therefore act as an important vector in the continuance of this act. The practice, in truth, is important because it does provide much needed minerals to the human body. Indeed, Western cultures have continued the practice of geophagy, but only under the guise of vitamins and minerals. The germ theory of disease states that many diseases are caused by microorganisms, and that microorganisms grow by reproduction, rather than being spontaneously generated. ... Look up Miasma in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. ... Minerals are natural compounds formed through geological processes. ... Retinol (Vitamin A) Vitamins are nutrients required in very small amounts for essential metabolic reactions in the body [1]. The term vitamin does not encompass other essential nutrients such as dietary minerals, essential fatty acids, or essential amino acids. ...

Geophagy in the United States

Most non-western societies consider geophagy to be an adaptive, beneficial, and nutritional approach to promote health. Geophagy represents the fusion of societal nature and beliefs outside of the western world. Non westerners see dirt and clay as natural crucial elements of the world with symbolic features. This sharply contrasts the western view of dirt as impure and contaminated.[5] This given perception explains the western world's negative connotation and repulsion with geophagy. There are also several other reasons why geophagy is considered in America to be a pathology or an eating disorder. One such reason is that geophagy is strongly associated with a minority practice. It has a stigma of being an eating habit of African slaves and poor African-Americans. Geophagy was common among slaves who were nick-named "clay-eaters" because they had been known to consume clay, as well as spices, ash, shalk, grass, plaster, paint, and starch.[6] This stigma presents a road-block to the spreading of the practice of geophagy to the suburban white upper-middle class.[7] Geophagy has been declining because it is deemed socially unacceptable to make dirt part of the diet.[8]

Another factor keeping geophagy out of common practice for Americans is likely its association with a female practice. Geophagy is often associated with women, and most commonly, pregnant women. This presents an issue as American culture does not regularly distinguish between male and female foods.[9] The dominant Victiorian ethic in American ideology is amongst the multiple reasons that "Geophagy" became stigmatized in American culture. An ability to control appetite coupled with eating seldomly was the appropriate measure of behavior in a "civilized' American culture. Engaging in and acting upon a craving for dirt was considered uncivilized because it was seen as having a lack of self-control. A person embodying the Victorian ethic would maintain a thin figure as well as refraining from alcohol and sex. Therefore, envoking the act of "geophagy", where craving and consumption of dirt was immense, was seen as a violation to the civilized American.[10]

The origin of geophagy in the United States

Many believe that the tradition of geophagy in the United States began with the importation of slaves from West Africa (Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate, 414,1975). Known at the time as "Cachexia Africana," slaves frequently tried to compensate for their nutritionally deficient diets by eating vitamin-enriched clay. Many slave owners believed that Cachexia Africana caused illnesses among their slaves and implemented certain devices to restrict their slaves from consuming dirt. In the southern United States one specific device was the mouth lock; a face piece that prevented slaves from consuming anything other than their rationed meals (Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate, 414,1975).

The future of geophagy in the United States

In the past, women who wanted to become pregnant followed the eating patterns of successful mothers instead of changing their diet according to medical studies and recommendations. As a result, geophagy has continued to pass from generation to generation. Cooked, baked, and processed dirt and clay are sold in health food stores and rural flea markets in the South. Researchers have noticed that geophagy is not as prevalent as it once was as rural Americans assimilate into urban culture. In order for geophagy to remain a part of American culture, more effective marketing strategies need to be implemented that fit into modern American culture.[11]

While the marketing of dirt in its original form would most likely not sell in the American market, geophagy may have a possible future if companies break up the dirt into its components. Several minerals or consitutents of dirt have varying therapeutic purposes. For instance, antacids or anti-diarrhea medications contain several consitutents of dirt. Although the chalky pink liquid gives a very different impression to buyers than raw earth, Americans still practice geophaphy in a certain sense. Also, as described before, Americans regard the practice of digging raw dirt for consumption as a wholly uncivilized act. Yet, the American culture could potentially continue to practice geophagy if a company marketed the dirt. Americans seem to respond greater to natural products if they could purchase them from a catalog or store. The future of geophagy in the United States seemingly depends upon scientific backing, and the creation of a market or company to provide the dirt to consumers.[12]

References in Popular Culture

  • In One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez, Rebeca exhibits symptoms of geophagy by secretly and compulsively eating the soil in the yard.
  • In the 1937 film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth, during a prolonged drought, O-Lan (Luise Rainer) serves the children something to eat. Neighbors desperate for food discover that she had fed them the good earth itself, because, as she says, it is warm and gives life.
  • In the novel Survivor by author Chuck Palahniuk, (Page 172), one female Creedish cult survivor is said to have killed herself after eating dirt, or committing "Geophagy", until she experienced an esophageal rupture.

One Hundred Years of Solitude (Spanish: Cien años de soledad) is a novel by Nobel Prize winning Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez that was first published in Spanish in 1967 (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana), with an English translation by Gregory Rabassa released in 1970 (New York: Harper and... This article or section does not cite any references or sources. ... The Good Earth (1937) is a movie based on the 1931 book of the same name by Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S. Buck about Chinese peasants who try to survive a locust invasion. ... Pearl Sydenstricker Buck, most familiarly known as Pearl S. Buck (birth name Pearl Comfort Sydenstricker; Chinese: ; Pinyin: ) (June 26, 1892 – March 6, 1973), was a prolific American writer and Nobel Prize winner. ... The Good Earth is a novel by Pearl S. Buck, first published in 1931, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel in 1932. ... Fields outside Benambra, Victoria suffering from drought conditions A drought is an extended period of months or years when a region notes a deficiency in its water supply. ... Luise Rainer in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) Luise Rainer (born January 12, 1910 in either Düsseldorf, Germany or Vienna, Austria) is a two-time Academy Award-winning film actress. ...

Reference in Science Digest

In a Science Digest article (Paraquat: a Potent Weed Killer is Killing People[13]), it is recommended that a paraquat poisoning victim promptly swallow dirt, even at the risk of salmonella, because paraquat is deactivated upon contact with soil. Otherwise, a sufficiently lethal dose would cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and especially the lungs, usually causing death by asphyxiation by causing severe fibrosis. Lung transplants in two victims merely delayed their deaths because chemical levels still in their bodies subsequently damaged the transplanted lungs, too. Paraquat is the trade name for N,N-Dimethyl-4,4-bipyridinium dichloride, a viologen. ...


  1. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 355
  2. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?"
  3. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366
  4. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 365
  5. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 354
  6. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 355
  7. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 357
  8. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 368
  9. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 360
  10. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 358-59
  11. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366-368
  12. ^ Henry and Kwong, "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?", p. 366-368
  13. ^ Revkin, A. C. 1983. Paraquat: A potent weed killer is killing people. Science Digest 91(6):36-38, 42, 100-104.
  • Callahan GN. Eating dirt. Emerg Infect Dis [serial online] 2003 Aug . Available from: URL: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol9no8/03-0033.htm
  • Dominy N, Davoust E, Minekus M (2004): Adaptive function of soil consumption: an in vitro study modeling the human stomach and small intestine. J Experimental Biology 207, 319-324 [1]
  • Donald E. Vermeer and Dennis A. Frate. "Annals of the Association of American geographers." Vol.65 No.3, 1975. 414-416
  • Hamilton G (1998): Let them eat dirt. New Scientist 159(2143):26-31
  • Harvey P, Dexter P and I Darnton-Hill (2000): The impact of consuming iron from non-food sources on iron status in developing countries. Public Health Nutrition 3(4):375-383
  • Kwong, Alica M.; Henry, Jaques. "Why is geophagy treated like dirt?" Deviant Behavior: An Interdisciplanary Journal.
  • Lagercrantz, Sture. "Geophagical Customs in Africa and among the Negroes in America." Studia Ethnographica Upsaliensia 17 (1958): 24–81.
  • Reid R (1992): Cultural and medical perspectives on geophagia. Med Anthropol 13(4):337-51
  • Vemeer, Donald. 1971. "Geophagy Among the Ewe of Ghana." Ethnology 10:56-72.
  • Vermeer D (1966): Geophagy among the Tiv of Nigeria. Ann Assoc Am Geographers 56(2):197
  • Walker A, Walker B (1997): Pica. J Soc Health 117(5):280-4
  • Wiley, Andrea S. "Geophagy." Encyclopedia of Food and Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 2. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2003. 120-121.
  • Wiley, Andrea S., and Solomon H. Katz. "Geophagy in Pregnancy: A Test of a Hypothesis." Current Anthropology 39, no. 4 (1998): 532–545.
  • Wong M, Simeon D (1993): The silica content of faeces as an index of geophagia: its association with age in two Jamaican children's homes. J Trop Pediatr 39(5):318-9
  • Ziegler J (1997): Geophagia: a vestige of paleonutrition. Trop Med Int Health 2(7):609-11

External links

  Results from FactBites:
Geophagy (215 words)
Geophagy is a type of disorder known as pica.
Geophagy seems to be most prevalent among Africans and their descendants.
Geophagy was also practiced by Native Americans who would eat dirt with acorns and potatoes to neutralize potentially harmful alkaloids.
Geissler Wenzel abstract (1631 words)
Geophagy has not received much scientific attention, which astounds as it may be relevant to two major health problems of school age children, namely infection and malnutrition.
Geophagy was practised by 73% of the 285 children.
Geophagy was associated with an increased fisk of re-infection with A.
  More results at FactBites »



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