(eating dirt or earth is a common practice on a global scale)

Geophagy may have important medical benefits or it can pose serious health risks

Eating dirt, or geophagy, in the American South is most common among blacks, and the practice might have been brought by slaves from Africa, where it has also been commonly consumed.

  • Geophagy also occurs among Southern whites and American Indians.
  • In urban settings, many geophagists turn to the consumption of laundry starch or even baking soda when clay is not easily available.
  • Some Northerners get clay from relatives in the South.
  • References to geophagy go back as far as 300 B.C., in the writings of Aristotle.
  • Geophagy occurs with both sexes, in all races, and in animals; as well as, humans.
  • It is found at all social and economic levels and in all cultures.
  • Despite its being so widespread, geophagy remains a little known phenomenon.
  • In parts of Nigeria, clay is mined in large quantities and distriubted for sale in markets all over West Africa

  • People around the world eat clay, dirt, or other pieces of the lithosphere for a variety of reasons.
  • Commonly, it is a traditional cultural activity which takes place during pregnancy, religious ceremonies, or as a remedy for a disease.
  • While it is a cultural practice, it also fills a physiological need for nutrients.
  • In Africa, pregnant and lactating women are able to satisfy the very different nutritional needs of their bodies by eating clay.
  • Clay is sold at markets in a variety of sizes and with differing content of minerals.
  • After a purchase, the clay is stored in a belt-like cloth material which is placed around the waist and eaten as desired; often without water.
  • The clay commonly ingested in Africa contains important nutrients; such as, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper, zinc, manganese, and iron.
  • Most geophagists prefer some variety of clay, instead of sand or topsoil.
  • One form of clay, kaolin, seems to be used by geophagists in part to control nausea and diarrhea.
  • Kaolin is a principal constituent of Kaopectate, a commercially produced anti-diarrheal medication.
  • Unfortunately, many African-Americans who practice geophagy (or quasi-geophagy) are also eating unhealthy materials; such as, laundry starch, ashes, chalk, and lead-paint chips because of psychological needs.
  • These materials have no nutritional benefits and can lead to intestinal problems and disease.
  • The eating of inappropriate objects and material is known as a pica.
  • Geophagy can lead to severe growth retardation, anemia, and even death

  • Certain soils can combine with minerals in the diet in such a way that the minerals cannot be absorbed by the body.
  • Iron deficiencies can then cause anemia, for example, and zinc deficiency can produce growth retardation.
  • There is also a geophagic syndrome that can be caused by geophagy.
  • The syndrome is marked by growth retardation, delayed sexual maturity, and liver and spleen enlargement.
  • Clay can also block the intestines, a condition that can be fatal.
Information for this page came from
"Dirt eating may have benefits, experts say, but seriouis health risks also cited",
The Stars and Stripes, June 1, 1986.
"Geophagy in Africa and in the United States: A Culture-Nutrition Hypothesis"
by John M. Hunter, Geographical Review, April, 1973.

The phago or eating unit of words The word unit of phago-, -phagy words.