Pica: Adele Edwards Eats Sofa Cushions Like Candy

Pica patients eat dirt, paint, sand and sofas, say doctors.

April 13, 2011— -- Adele Edwards has an unusual eating disorder: She consumes couches like they were candy, going through seven sofas in the last 21 years.

The Bradenton, Fla., mother-of-five has a condition called pica, which more often affects young children and pregnant mothers. Her non-food item of choice is the foam inside the cushions.

"I unzip the cushions and snack on the foam inside," Edwards. 31, told Britain's Daily Mail newspaper. "And once I start I just can't stop. But now doctors have told me that if I carry on, my addiction will kill me."

Edwards said she chomps down a throw pillow each week -- reaching for the foam about 15 times a day.

"There is no metabolic need for sofa cushions," said Keith Ayoob, associate clinical professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and director of the nutrition clinic at New York City's Rose R. Kennedy Center. "But people do eat weird stuff."

Ayoob has treated patients who eat laundry starch, paper and clay. He also has seen those who eat ice. "Not just in a drink, but trays of it. God knows why."

Of Edwards, he said, "It may be a compulsive habit...I am surprised that this is not poisonous. One would think her system would back up after a while. There is clearly a mental health issue going on here that needs treatment."

Edwards was featured on television's "Strange Addictions" on TLC last year. ABCNews.com made several attempts to call her, but she was unavailable for an interview.

Pica is a pattern of eating non-food materials, such as dirt or paper, and is seen more frequently in young children, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). An estimated 10 to 32 percent of children aged 1 to 6 have these behaviors. The name pica means "magpie" -- Latin for the bird who will eat anything.

In adulthood, these unusual cravings can be triggered by lack of certain nutrients, such as iron or zinc.

Some adults, like Edwards, crave the texture of the material in their mouths.

Pregnant women can sometimes have odd cravings for non-food objects, such as ashes, laundry starch, hair, coffee grounds and even cigarette butts, according to the online Baby Center.

Readers said they wanted to eat sand and dirt because they were drawn to the texture. "I would smell dirt and want to eat it, but I knew that once I put it in my mouth, it wouldn't be the texture I was expecting," said one. "So I ate ice."

Animal feces, clay, dirt, ice, paint, sand and hairballs have also been reported, according to NIH. To fit the diagnosis of Pica, the patient must have ingested it for at least a month.

Edwards said her craving for foam becomes worse when she is stressed. She said she likes the flavor and texture and sometimes rubs it in dirt before eating the foam.

Treatment includes first addressing missing nutrients or exposure to toxins like lead. Then, specialists address behavioral and family issues. Mild aversion therapy followed by positive reinforcement for eating proper foods can also be successful.

Complications can include bezoar, a mass of indigestible material that is lodged in the stomach or digestive tract or an intestinal obstruction and sometimes lead poisoning or malnutrition.

Adele Edwards Tried Hypnosis

In fact, Edwards has said that doctors have told her the foam can damage her digestive tract and she could even die.

She has tried therapy, including hypnosis, to stop the compulsion. She was sent to the hospital three years ago with a blockage in her lower intestine and as doctors readied her for surgery, laxatives did the trick and she passed a ball of foam as big as a grapefruit, according to the article.

Her doctor, gastroenterologist Dr. Christopher Olenec of the Digestive Health Center in Sarasota, Florida, did not answer ABC's questions, instead referring them to TLC.

According to the newspaper, Edwards was prescribed iron supplements for a deficiency, and she hopes it will stop the compulsive behavior.

When pica is not caused by an iron deficiency, it is often "a disturbance in the thought process," according to Dr. G. Richard Locke, a gastrologist and motility expert from the Mayo Clinic.

Problems could arise if the foam is not "ground up" enough in the stomach to pass through the stomach outlet -- only about one-half inch in diameter.

A non-food material could become microscopic and toxins might be absorbed into her system, but most materials small enough to work their way from top to bottom eventually pass.

"It has to get through the intestine," said Locke, who has treated patients who have swallowed coins and hairballs, among other things.

The digestive tract is "one long tube from the mouth to the bottom," he said. "It's in our body, but not actually in our body. It protects us."