Thursday, June 7, 2012

You Eat Sand, Why Not Dirt?

Maybe we were on to something when we were eight years old.

Genius in the making here. No joke.
Mud pies. Not the delicious ice cream dessert, but the true, honest-to-goodness, sculpted mud creation. At the time, we were probably just in it for getting dirty and squishing the liquid between our fingers. But what if we actually ate dirt? I don’t think that’s such a stretch. After all…

We Eat Sand

Check the labels of most cheese spreads or other gooey products and you’ll likely find silicon dioxide or silica. It’s used as an anti-gelling agent, keeping your cheese creamy. But what is it, you might ask?

Silicon dioxide is sand. As the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s crust, it is one of the cheapest food additives in existence.

But I’m not telling you this so you’ll go home and throw out any packages of Velveeta or Cheez Whiz. Believe it or not, sand isn’t that bad for you. In fact, silicon is just as important as calcium and vitamin D for building bones. It is also crucial for healthy joints. I’m not saying the next time you go to the beach that you should start snacking at the sand bar, but just know that some vital minerals for our bodies come from bizarre places.

Some People Eat Dirt

“A person should eat a pound of dirt before they die.” It’s a fairly common English expression, meaning that we need to get dirty in order to fully enjoy life. But there’s literal truth to this quote, too.

ABC News wrote an article about the health benefits of certain soils, in which a woman in Georgia admitted to chowing down on clay. According to her, whenever she was pregnant, she’d have strong cravings for the mineral-rich sediment just outside her town. And now, science tells us that there’s a good reason for her cravings.

Mud - Just like mom used to make!
When cows are producing milk for their young, they are commonly seen eating dirt, clay, or finding salt licks. That’s because producing milk, just like sweating, reduces the amount of salt in their bodies. Eating dirt helps to correct this imbalance, allowing for healthier milk for the calf.

As most people know, pregnant women are prone to strange cravings. For my mom, it was Masterpiece Barbeque Ruffles potato chips. I don’t mean to compare my mom to a cow (although that’s not an insult – some of my best friends are cows,) but there’s logic to it: when providing nutrition for another life, you have to supplement your normal food intake. For some women, the salt imbalance is corrected by potato chips. Other women eat clay. There is a biologically sound reason for seeking nutrients from soil.

More recent research suggests that soil corrects bacteria imbalances in the digestive tract. A 2011 study from Cornell University showed that the nutrients present in soil are minimal, whereas the positive effects this soil could have on intestinal bacteria was astounding. Instead of dirt causing a stomach ache, the study showed that people ate dirt because of a stomach ache caused by bad bacteria, and the microbes present in the soil helped cure the eaters.

For me, between drinking Pepto Bismol or swallowing a handful of dirt... It'd be a rough choice...

But Sometimes, Dirt-Eaters Are Genuinely Sick

Eating dirt, or other non-edible things like hair, paint, or paper, can be a symptom pica, a neurological disorder. Instead of eating to correct a nutritional imbalance, some people eat non-foods compulsively. They don’t really know why they have the urge to suck down Elmer’s glue or toothpaste, they just do.

This girl on TLC’s show My Strange Addiction compulsively eats toilet paper, an obvious sign of pica.

Pica affects 10-30 percent of all children, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Often times it corrects itself through education (“No, Timmy, we don’t eat our G.I. Joes…”) but severe cases could require therapy.

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