Clay Craving and Dirt Dining: Eating Earth May Be Good for Us
Young found that dirt eating is most often commonplace in hot, humid climates—places teeming with tropical microbes. Her research also revealed that those most immunologically vulnerable—namely pregnant women, children, and those already suffering from gastrointestinal problems—were those reported to most frequently consume earth.
Pregnant women, especially during in their first trimester, have lowered defenses so their body doesn’t reject the developing fetus. Young found more reports of pregnant women consuming dirt than all other reports combined. “My mom says she ate dirt when she was pregnant with me,” Williams says, “and I had a girlfriend from New Orleans whose mother ate dirt when she was pregnant with her, too.” Indeed, in India geophagy was described as “a sign of the commencement of pregnancy” in 1906, and in southern Africa,
records indicate “It would be very surprising if pregnant women in Malawi did not eat clay. That is how you know when you are pregnant!”
Geophagists are highly selective about the dirt they eat, often gathering it from places less likely to contain contaminants, such as a deep hole. Dirt can be eaten raw, but it’s often baked, fried, sun-dried, or smoked.
Preference for clay-like soil was indicated in 98 percent of the 243 reports Young analyzed that included descriptions of the earth type. Often, a particular spot was preferred over others. Williams’ mother and father only eat clay harvested from their childhood homes. They don’t have the right type of dirt in Laurel, Williams supposes, so today her parents hold out for the red dirt of their hometowns and indulge in the treat when visiting their families. She recalls that when her mother sent food to relatives who had moved to Chicago or New York, she always included home-dug dirt. Williams herself accompanied her father to his old home, where the two dug up and tried the dirt, which “tasted a bit sour.”
Young also had occasion to sample dirt. While finishing her graduate research, she found herself stuck overnight at the airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, sick to her stomach from eating a slice of chicken pizza. “I was throwing up, diarrhea, everything,” She recalls. Out of options, Young turned to her clay field samples, and decided to “treat herself” by putting her theory to the test. “I ate this clay, and it really helped!” she says. Young emphasizes that she’s not prescribing it, though, and says it must be an acquired taste since it reminded her of “stale air” and left a coating on her tongue. “It smells better than it tastes,” she admits.
And there are potential downsides, Young warns. Anemia is often associated with the practice, perhaps because clay prevents necessary nutrients like iron and zinc from absorbing into the body. More research is needed to explore this link.
For now, Young hopes her research will encourage others to “stop regarding geophagy as a bizarre, non-adaptive gustatory mistake.” Young, who recently had a baby, didn’t experience any pica cravings, including for dirt. She jokes, “The whole purpose was to see if I would get pica when I was pregnant!”
See also: Cool dirt facts