Why do some people crave ice? Can chewing ice cause health problems?
Is Chewing Ice Bad for You?
Almost everyone knows someone who is addicted to chewing ice. They crunch on ice cubes all day long. They get up in the middle of the night to chew ice. They have favorite ice cube trays and go out of their way to get ice from specific places. They literally go crazy if they can’t get ice. Maybe you’re one of them.
Why Do People Chew Ice?
Ice chewing is called pagophagia, and it’s one specific type of a more general medical condition that’s referred to as pica. People with pica have a compulsive desire to eat things that have no nutritional value, such as ice or cornstarch, or even things that aren’t food at all, like clay, dirt, chalk, or paint chips. Compared with gnawing on pencil erasers or peeling the paint off the baseboards, chewing on a little ice doesn’t seem all that bad, does it? Nonetheless, it can signal a medical problem.
As with other forms of pica, the compulsion to chew ice is often a sign of severe iron deficiency. That’s probably why so many women report developing an ice-chewing habit during pregnancy. Because iron needs are very high during pregnancy, pregnant women commonly develop iron deficiency anemia.
Another group of people that are at high risk of iron and other nutrient deficiencies are those who have had gastric bypass surgery. Because the size of the stomach is so drastically reduced by this surgery, patients can eat only very small amounts of food, which obviously limits the amount of nutrients they can take in. Plus, their ability to digest food and absorb nutrients is greatly impaired. That, by the way, is just one reason why I believe that gastric bypass should be used only as a last resort and accompanied by much more intensive nutritional therapy and support than it usually is.
What Do Food Cravings Mean?
Some people say that when you have a craving for a certain food, it’s a sign that your body needs the nutrients in that food. But ice is not a good source of iron or other nutrients. So, although chewing ice isn’t likely to cause anemia, it’s certainly not going to cure it, either. Another reason that you might be attracted to ice chewing if you’re anemic is that anemia can make your tongue and gums sore or cause a burning sensation in your mouth, which chewing ice can help to relieve.
What Should You Do if You Crave Ice?
If you’re a compulsive ice chewer, it is highly likely that you are suffering from iron deficiency anemia. It’s vitally important to check with your doctor to see whether you might need treatment for that. Many people find that once they correct the iron deficiency, the craving for ice goes away. Other medical conditions or medications can cause dry mouth so if you chew ice because your mouth always feels dry, check with your doctor about that too.
But chewing ice can also simply be a habit. People start chewing ice to relieve a dry mouth or out of boredom or to relieve stress or to quell the urge to snack, and over time it develops into a habit… or even a compulsion. Treating compulsive behavior disorders is obviously outside my purview as a nutritionist. If any habit or behavior starts to seriously interfere with your peace of mind or your ability to lead a happy, productive life, you’d probably want to consult a mental health professional.
Is Chewing Ice Bad for You?
But if you’ve ruled out underlying medical problems and your ice chewing habit isn’t threatening your relationships or your way of life, is there any harm in ice chewing? As I’ve talked about before, the idea that chewing ice or drinking iced beverages can damage your gastrointestinal tract or give you stomach cancer is a myth. It will not dilute your stomach acid or interfere with digestion. As long as you’re not chewing on ice to the exclusion of nutritious foods, it’s unlikely to lead to any nutritional problems. In fact, as I mentioned before, drinking water or chewing ice is sometimes used as a tool to prevent over-eating both by keeping your mouth busy and by taking up stomach space that you might otherwise be tempted to fill up with donuts.
Chewing ice can crack your teeth, however—which can get expensive. And it can annoy the living daylights out of the guy in the next cubicle at work…or the one sitting next to you on the couch at home. But that’s really a problem for Modern Manners Guy, not the Nutrition Diva!
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Ice image from Shutterstock