Watch: "I couldn't stop eating clay while pregnant"
When Dymund Dina fell pregnant with her first child in 2013, she experienced a rather unusual pregnancy craving: clay.
Dina, 31, is now a mum of five and has since spent £3,000 on the craving, and continues to eat the chalky substance today.
The craving began after Dina started smelling washing powder, which eventually led to her consuming the edible clay as it smelt similar.
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She buys the clay, known as Mabele or edible kaolin clay, from shops in her local area of London that import it from Congo, Central Africa.
During Dina’s first pregnancy, she estimates she spent around £800 on the clay, describing the cravings as an "addiction". She says she spent another £2,200 on clay during her other three pregnancies (including one set of twins) and continues to eat it now.
"Mabele has a really distinctive smell, and when I was pregnant I was obsessed with it," Dina, from southeast London, says.
"It smells like fresh rain in summer - that's the only way I can describe it. Then I started eating it and couldn't stop. When I was pregnant I'd get through ten bags a day, it was such a strong craving. Each bag is roughly two grams.
"I still can't get enough and eat clay every day, and I'm not even pregnant anymore."
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Dina said eating the clay during her first pregnancy helped with her morning sickness, and that her mum also ate it while she was pregnant.
"The cravings really kicked in around the 12-week mark of my first pregnancy," she adds. "Up until that point, I'd been too sick to eat anything. But as I went into my second trimester, I found that eating the clay really helped with the nausea.
"I'm obsessed with the taste and texture, I just can't get enough of it," Dina adds, saying that it tastes salty.
Is eating clay while pregnant safe?
Eating clay during pregnancy is nothing new. A study from 2020 found that eating this kind of clay during pregnancy is a "cultural phenomenon embedded in indigenous knowledge" that stems from African countries like Congo. Reasons for eating clay can include curbing morning sickness, nausea, and satisfying cravings.
However, the same study said that most public health practitioners consider the practice "dangerous" and "potentially harmful to the health of the woman and unborn child".
The practice of eating clay, or other non-nutritive substances such as dirt, chalk, soap and ice is called "pica".
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A study from 2004 estimated that the practice dates back to the Greco-Roman civilisation, and that prevalence during pregnancy can be anywhere from 8% to 65%.
"No one is quite sure why pica occurs," Dr Deborah Lee from Dr Fox Online Pharmacy says. "The ‘protection hypothesis,’ supposes that this is a natural method to protect their unborn baby from pathogens and toxins. Clay contains diosmectite, a natural silicate which has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory effect on the gut in studies on rats. Pica may also be a response to stress."
Lee adds that while kaolin clay is sometimes used to treat gastrointestinal diseases, it is not recommended in pregnancy as it contains bismuth salicylate, a medication often used to treat diarrhoea.
"Current evidence shows pregnant women should not eat clay," Lee adds. "Although it can serve as a good source of minerals, research shows it is often contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, selenium and lead. Clay is unsafe for human consumption and could pose health risks to the woman and the unborn baby."
Lee says that long-term effects of eating clay can include iron deficiency, low potassium levels, and even lead poisoning.
The most common pregnancy cravings
While eating clay is a relatively rare pregnancy craving, a 2014 study found that some of the more common cravings include sweets, fruit, and animal protein.
The study, published in Frontiers of Psychology, analysed over 200 posts from pregnancy-related blog websites on food cravings and found that chocolate and sweets are the biggest food craving for pregnant women.
This is followed by savoury carbohydrates like pizza and chips, animal protein like steak and chicken, fruit, and high calorie savoury dairy products like cheese and sour cream.
The full list is as follows:
Sweets (chocolate, candy)
Carbohydrates, high-calorie, savoury (pizza, chips)
Animal protein (steak, chicken)
Dairy, high-calorie, savoury (cheese, sour cream)
Carbohydrates, other (pretzels, cereal)
Fast food (e.g., Chinese, Mexican, falafel)
Cold foods (ice cream, slurpee)
Dairy, high-calorie, sweet (ice cream, milkshakes)
The study also pointed to prior research which found that savoury food cravings tend to be stronger during the first trimester of pregnancy, while sweet cravings reach their peak during the second trimester.
Cravings for salty foods tend to emerge later on in the pregnancy, usually during the third trimester.