While it may seem strange to many people, the practice of eating soil is quite common among South African women. According to research, it is a widespread activity among pregnant and breastfeeding women that may indicate a severe lack of iron.
Johannesburg-based medical doctor Dr Lerato Masemola says the practice of eating soil has been happening for many years all over the world. Masemola says it is also common in communities where people culturally believe that eating soil has health benefits like helping with general stomach problems or correcting nutrient deficiencies.
Being addicted to eating soil for 25 years while being a soil seller has made the quitting journey more difficult for Mandisa Mangada from Tembisa in Gauteng. She highlights that being a seller has shown and shocked her by realising the number of people who actually eat soil, including young boys and girls.
“I am a clay seller, and I have it in my house, so I don’t really know how much I used to eat a day because I had all types in my house, and a lot of women spend a lot of money on it, even men.
“Clients from all over South Africa, Namibia and other African countries buy soil from me. I have even had someone spend R3 000 on soil because of how addictive it is.”
Mangada states that she craved it more when pregnant and ate about 3-5kg a day to feel fulfilled, happy, and relieved. She adds that she is aware that this has various negative impacts on her health and has spoken to a doctor, but says they are informed about iron tablets that do not help them.
“I used to see my sister eating it from trees and the garden, and I tasted it, and I started eating it too. I think I started craving it because of an iron deficiency. I’ve been trying to quit, but I can’t.
“Low blood pressure is a condition I have because of it. I also experience dizziness, being tired all the time, a fast heartbeat, and difficulty going to the toilet,” says Mangada.
Negative impact on health
Nompumelelo Shezi from uMlazi in KwaZulu-Natal, who now has constipation issues due to eating soil, says that she tried to stop for a year, then started again four years ago. Although she still craves it, she’s trying to stop again, especially because she used to consume her hair, coal, candles, and even matchstick heads when she was unable to find the perfect soil.
“I started when I was in primary school in 2000 with the aim of just tasting and trying to fit in because I was bullied. A few weeks later, I started craving it maybe once a day, to the point where I could not go a day without it, up to three to four times a day. I do not know what to do in order to completely stop because I no longer like it. It is just hard to cope when I’m craving for it,” she says.
Shezi mentions that eating soil has become an irreplaceable form of satisfaction. She also shares that she craved it more during her pregnancies and believes it may have caused some complications.
“I wanted it a lot during my two pregnancies, especially my last pregnancy. I strongly believe that it affected my baby because when she was still small, I could see the soil in her belly button as it had not healed yet, and now it is bigger than normal. It feels like it was caused by my stupidity in consuming soil,” adds Shezi.
‘I fell in love with it’
After eating soil for nine years, Luyanda Hadebe from Newcastle in KZN struggles with low blood pressure and has too little iron in her body. She says she wants to stop eating soil because she fears it may pose more risks to her health.
“A friend of mine used to go eat soil, so I tasted it and fell in love with it from that day on. I’m really trying to stop eating soil because I spend a lot of money on it and it has caused abnormal pains in my womb, low blood pressure, eczema, and terribly itchy skin. I do not even have a stable reason for eating it; I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I still continue because of how enjoyable it is,” she says.
Masemola says eating soil can be a result of a deficiency causing cravings for minerals from the soil, like iron, and while soil does contain minerals and nutrients, eating it is not a safe way to get those into the body.
“To correct deficiencies, the deficient minerals or nutrients must be taken in appropriate food amounts to replace them or get the appropriate or recommended supplements. Iron is necessary for making red blood cells, which transport oxygen all over the body. So, in cases of severe iron deficiency, one may need to get a transfusion or even a blood transfusion if there is severe anaemia or a lack of red blood cells,” she says.
‘Soil is not food’
Signs that someone may have eaten too much soil include abdominal pain, nausea with or without vomiting, constipation with or without abdominal bloating and obstruction, and general weakness. There are also potential health risks associated with eating soil, such as infections, constipation, and lead poisoning.
“The soil could contain dirt and parasites (such as worms) that can cause infections and infestations in the gut. Infections can result in vomiting and diarrhoea, general swelling (inflammation), and damage to the lining of the gut, resulting in gas, bloating, discomfort, and pain. Soil is not food, so it cannot be digested. So, it may not move as swiftly as digested food in the gut. This will result in constipation, discomfort, and pain when passing stool with the soil.
“Lead occurs naturally in soil, but it can also be present in higher amounts due to pollution. Apart from lead, there may be other heavy metals, human waste, and other harmful substances ingested,” explains Masemola.
Address the iron deficiency first
People, especially pregnant women, also eat soil due to a condition called Pica. Mologado describes this as an intense or strong urge or craving to eat things that are not food and to eat them in large amounts. Apart from the soil, these may include clay, chalk, etc. The craving may be for the taste and texture or for medicinal, cultural, or religious reasons, with some even believing it is good for the baby.
“If a pregnant woman is eating soil due to a craving that comes from a lack of iron and they are not actually taking the relevant and necessary supplements to correct the iron deficiency, there will be adverse health implications for the health of the mother and the fetus. Affected mothers will have symptoms related to iron deficiency heart problems such as shortness of breath, severe fatigue, fainting, and heart palpitations.
“For the fetus, the health implications include low birth weight, premature birth, anaemia in the newborn baby, and even fetal death. The mom and baby may need a blood transfusion,” she adds.
Masemola further highlights that healthcare providers can help by making the correct diagnosis and then giving the appropriate treatment, including providing or prescribing the necessary nutrient supplements. She also encourages more education for patients about the dangers of eating soil and the lack of benefits thereof.
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