Mumbo Jumbo

You Probably Shouldn’t Try to Lose 20 Pounds by Eating Clay

Zoe Kravitz says it helped her drop weight. Shailene Woodley claims it’s ‘cleansing.’ And it’s practiced around the world. But the risks of eating clay outweigh the purported benefits.

06.24.14 9:45 AM ET

When I was a medical student in my native Oklahoma, I treated a young woman with a calm smile and severe anemia. I ran the usual diagnostic tests and had the usual conversations and hurried importantly along the endless hospital corridors. But no one could figure out the cause of her anemia until someone asked her more carefully about her diet. “Oh yeah,” she said, “sometimes I like to go up to the hill.”

Everyone in the room other than me knew what she was referring to. She, like a lot of young women in rural Oklahoma, ate clay. She wasn’t crazy (the current bible of psychiatry, DSM-5, has an entry for “pica and rumination disorders” to cover this sort of thing), pregnant, or desperately seeking detoxification—she just liked it.

So I am not surprised that clay eating, also called geophagy, has become the latest cooler-than-thou thing for the Hollywood crowd looking to firm up, slim down, and distance themselves ever further from the seeming poison of daily life on Sunset Boulevard. Divergent star Shailene Woodley says she nibbles terra firma for its cleansing effect, whereas Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny, became a geophage in order to lose 20 pounds for her next flick, The Road Within. She too swears by the feel-good aspect of the diet, claiming it’s like eating a “Mason jar of pureed vegetables a day and running,” apparently a familiar feeling to some.

So rural Okies and Hollywood starlets do the same thing. Does that make it the stupidest activity ever? Well, eating clay might not be in the top five dumb fads championed by showbiz celebs and then glamorized for general consumption (Scientology, anyone?), but it’s still up toward the leaders.

For all its literal back-to-earth mumbo-jumbo and wisdom-of-someone-else’s-father’s seductions, eating clay is, as noted, time honored and practiced worldwide. Wikipedia has an entire entry on medicinal clays, though many are of the mud-bath variety. Its relationship to anemia, however, is more complex than the cause-and-effect sequence I learned in medical school. Rather, the clay-anemia tango is an unresolved chicken-or-egg conundrum, with some insisting that anemic people are driven by some paleo-appetite to eat dirt, whereas others believe that eating dirt might suck iron out of the body or else displace absorption of iron-containing foods, thereby depleting the body of the single essential building block of the red blood cell.

But as with so many customs, little information is available to assess the impact of clay and its congeners on human health. The tale of an old remedy for children’s stomach ailments, Kaopectate, is cautionary, though. For many years, Kaopectate contained kaolin, a component of some clays, but in the 1980s the manufacturer changed to a different clay-based component, attapulgite, also called palygorskite. This component, like kaolin, was there to absorb whatever bad stuff was in the intestinal tract and to therefore help settle the stomach.

The FDA, however, studied the new product and in 2003 found that there was no evidence of benefit, leading the manufacturer to switch away from clay and to the same bismuth-salicylate combo found in Pepto-Bismol. Although clay appears to be yet another seemingly reliable home remedy to fall short when evidence, not anecdote, is considered, the evidence-based British National Formulary still has kaolin available to give children with diarrhea.

But we are not talking about treating children with diarrhea here. We are talking about a detoxifying, slimming, über-natural, anti-modern approach to health practiced by an influential tribe of Glam-Americans: skinny famous women.

All the talk of eating clay seems pretty much like standard issue fan-mag but for this: It comes at the oddest of times—when germ-phobia is at a record high among these same prissy Purell-hugging people and most of the rest of Western society. Toys have embedded antibiotics; Yankee Stadium was rebuilt with special antibacterial chemicals added in; manufacturers of sheets and towels and clothes, for Christ’s sake, are looking at ways to thread in substances with antibacterial properties.

Yet here we are on the other end of the spectrum, where people are eating literal shit to treat various intestinal ailments; ingesting worms to treat their asthma; insisting their children get life-threatening diseases (more natural) rather than take vaccines; and now, eating dirt for its apparent health benefits.

The purported benefits of geophagy, including its ability to somehow take toxins out of the system, strike me as nutty and decidedly untrue, though surely there is some impact on digestion. What needs a bit more consideration is the risk side. Dirt, after all, is dirty, and—be it clay from Attapulgus, Georgia, or the fields of Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, or the Oklahoma hills that Woody Guthrie once sang about—contains the excrement from countless animals who work the territory as they look for non-dirt nourishment.

And in the excrement reside countless infectious diseases, mostly worms and the like. The simplest example of the problems with eating dirt are the dangers—small but real—from your local sandbox, where Junior invariably gets a mouthful as he plays with his trucks and soldiers. Once in a while Junior picks up a worm by eating cat or dog feces buried in the sand and develops a bothersome itchy skin disease called cutaneous larva migrans. And very rarely, severe encephalitis may occur if certain worms deposited by raccoons are ingested.

Mother Earth is riddled with bacteria, too (remember anthrax?), and all sorts of other pathogens. That probably means tomorrow’s clay-eaters will have to buy their goods from reliable traffickers of this hot new commodity. Inevitably a connoisseur’s palate will develop, as taste is considered along with the guarantee that the product is certified to be germ-free. That will bring down claims that certain brands of clay are over-processed and not natural enough. And then counter-claims and counter-counter, and on and on.

It might be easier for us all to just say no—and avoid the risk of stepping in it.