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January 18, 2005 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Why does eating in a restaurant make me crap my pants?

I have a generally healthy, varied diet. I can eat anything prepared at home, regardless of how rich, fatty, or spicy it is. But nearly everything from restaurants causes massive stomach upset. I have an intense need to go to the bathroom within 20 or 30 minutes of eating restaurant food - sometimes it's diarrhea, sometimes not.

I can eat junk food, fast food - even Taco Bell - without problems, which adds to my confusion about the cause. I thought it might be MSG, but the local Chinese restaurant is one of the few places I can eat, and they do use MSG. Is there one particular food additive that I'm not aware of that might be doing this? Any other ideas?
posted by anonymous to Food & Drink (51 answers total)
Sulfides. My mother has a violent stomach reaction to the sulfides often used on lettuce and such things as a preservative. If you often eat the salad when you go out to eat, you may have a sensitivity to the sulfides on the lettuce that are being used to keep it green and crisp.
posted by u.n. owen at 5:05 PM on January 18, 2005

more generally tho, restaurant food tends to be richer than what we cook for ourselves, and depending on the place, portions may be bigger too--maybe that's it? overeating richer food?
posted by amberglow at 5:28 PM on January 18, 2005

Not fast food, and not Chinese food, check. What other types of cuisine do you eat when you go out? Maybe we can spot some common thread between them.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 5:33 PM on January 18, 2005

I sometimes have a similar experience, to the point where I'll need to plan what's going to happen after eating so I can know there will be a restroom available.

I don't have an answer, but in my experience it either has to do with the fact that because you're "out" when this happens, you are also being active to some degree. At home, after you eat, you're comfortable and can relax in your own home so there's no immediate poop reflex.

It may also be a very slight form of anxiety, where being out and about increases your metabolism or tends to manifest itself by upsetting your stomach more than when you haven't eaten.
posted by robbie01 at 5:42 PM on January 18, 2005

Have you considered that you have buggy water at home? Perhaps this is a sort of Montezuma's Revenge? You're so used to the bacteria you have at home that going out to a restaurant where they have foreign bugs that your system freaks out?

Try taking acedophelus (sp) pills for a while and see if that helps you out. That should balance your digestive tract and make you more resistant to the nasties out there in the world.
posted by glyphlet at 5:43 PM on January 18, 2005

Restaurant food tends to um... speed up my digestive process. I've always assumed that it was the massive amounts of olive oil and butter? Restaurants tend to use fresher ingredients, and I also tend to eat more than when I am eating at home. I think that for me, at least, it's a combination of these things. But there may be something else that I'm missing.
posted by exlotuseater at 5:45 PM on January 18, 2005

Interesting. I've found that specific restaurant food give me the intestinal hokey-pokey. For example, guaranteed ass-blowers for me are (1) A&W Teen Burgers (but not other burgers there) and (2) any sit-down meal at Pizza Hut. (Aren't you glad I shared?) So I try to avoid. I'd assumed something cheese-related, since I associated it with the ersatz-cheese bread I once had the misfortune of trying at the latter place. (Pizza Hut take-out I've had less trouble with, for some reason -- so it's probably one of the side dishes.) I have no trouble with Chinese, Indian, Thai or African restaurant food, no matter how volcanic; nor do I have trouble with my homemade, butter-and-oil heavy, risotto. Maybe I'm just allergic to crap food, if you'll pardon the pun.

glyphlet: "acidophilus".
posted by mcwetboy at 5:47 PM on January 18, 2005

You are pissing off the waitstaff and they are giving you a mild case of food poisoning. Examine your behavior.
posted by fixedgear at 5:47 PM on January 18, 2005

I am not anonymous, but I have similar issues. I'll be interested to see what develops in this thread.
posted by jacquilynne at 5:50 PM on January 18, 2005

I avoid eating right before flying for this exact reason.
posted by kindall at 5:56 PM on January 18, 2005

What's your metabolism and reaction to hunger like?

When I'm hungry (about every 3 hours), I *must* eat immediately, or will soon feel very sick. Having to wait on my dinner party, plus the waiter and cook really screws with my blood sugar and I'm usually miserable by the time the meal arrives (which, of course, is probably too rich to begin with and further makes me ill). Needless to say, I try to avoid dining out.

But on my own, I can accommodate my eating schedule. I'll eat the same restaurant food for leftovers, and while I might feel a little queasy from the richness, I don't feel anywhere near as sick in the same way as actually dining out.
posted by Sangre Azul at 6:14 PM on January 18, 2005

Criminy, I've got the same problem! Diner food does it to me - eggs, bacon, toast. But so does greasy pizza from certain places. Within ten minutes of eating these, I have a need for the toilet, and it's...stinky. Two seconds of a lit zippo will usually take out my uhm, aroma, but not in these cases - it's greasy and sulfurous - bilious? I thought it might be a reaction to eggs, but I recently made eggs and bacon at home without any trouble.

This doesn't really help, but it serves as another data point...
posted by notsnot at 6:23 PM on January 18, 2005

Based on my experience in the food-service industry, what fixedgear said could very likely be the case (if you're an asshole to servers). However, much more likely is the "book store" scenario - just when you're ready to spend a lengthy amount of time engaging in an activity that should be poop-free ... you have to poop.
posted by Token Meme at 6:25 PM on January 18, 2005

It sounds more like an anxiety reaction (as has been suggested) than anything biological. If and when you go to a restaurant, you go into it with the expectation of feeling uncomfortable. Ergo, you make yourself ill.

I had the same problem with panic attacks. I wouldn't want to travel for fear of freaking out at an inopportune time. But I'd work up the nerve to get on a plane and visit an unfamiliar place because I didn't want to be held back by an irrational fear. Sure enough, however, I'd end up freaking out, making both myself and my friends miserable. It was the fear of the fear that triggered - not an easy thing to get over.

It's certainly possible that something physical is causing your problems, but it seems unlikely that there's something in the food at nearly every place you visit. Why, for example, does the Chinese place work out? Is it because your comfortable there and visited before this condition set in?

In any case, I hope you feel better soon!
posted by aladfar at 6:31 PM on January 18, 2005

Yeah Poofilter!

I really don't have any suggestions, but I have similar issues. Actually, I just returned from the toilet in my own home, so this is particularly interesting to me. Place doesn't matter to me, so I think I'm going to start keeping track of the foods I eat and when I have problems to see if I can pinpoint anything. Maybe doing something similar would be helpful to you?
posted by stefnet at 6:37 PM on January 18, 2005

My guess would be butter -- restaurants put a truly alarming amount of butter in stuff.
posted by jennyjenny at 6:44 PM on January 18, 2005

Cream sauces are especially bad for me, in that regard... unfortunately there's a bunch of things at my favorite restaurant that I can't eat anymore because of this. (I'm probably better off this way, though...)
posted by xil at 6:51 PM on January 18, 2005

Any meal prepared in a restaurant is going to automatically contain more butter than most of us use at home. Depending on the quality of the restaurant, you may also expect a much higher degree of salt. High end restaurants will use a lot of butter and very highly reduced sauces which are extremely rich. Lower quality restaurants will use a lot of salt. A LOT. So, you are probably getting a gigantic does of either butter or salt, two things which you probably don't go overboard on at home. Your system might not be used to this.

Also, while it may be nice to imagine that the butter used to prepare your dinner is in the refrigerator all the time and that they always use a fresh stick when making your dinner, the reality is that a tub of butter sits next to the chef's station all night long in the extreme heat and is then put back into the refrigerator at the end of the night to be used again the next day. So, not only might you be getting a big ass dose of hardcore butter, you may also be getting a nice big dose of sour, spoiled butter. This is like EZ Pass on the Poop Shoot Expressway. Next exit, your pants.

The reason it probably doesn't happen at chinese and fast food joints is that chinese cooking uses no butter and fast food uses oils and trans fats, not butter. Takes longer to get through your system.
posted by spicynuts at 6:56 PM on January 18, 2005 [4 favorites]

Whirl. Or some Sysco-specific evil.
posted by jennyb at 7:24 PM on January 18, 2005

However, much more likely is the "book store" scenario... You know, I thought I was the only one who did that. You've just made my evening!

On topic, in recent years I'm finding that anything with tomato sauce of any sort makes for an event-filled evening (and the following morning as well).
posted by NsJen at 7:26 PM on January 18, 2005

My two cents: it might be soap or degreaser. My experience as a waiter taught me that stuff washed in commercial dishwashers can often come out under-rinsed. Unfortunately, most restaurants bring you your water glasses already filled so you don't get a chance to sniff the empties. At the place I worked last, the glasses would smell so soapy and crap that I'd rinse the ones I'd drink from twice before using em.
Does takeout mess you up too?
p.s. this thread is killing me.
posted by Edible Energy at 7:31 PM on January 18, 2005

The problem I have with most of the suggested answers is that the need to defecate occurs within 20 or 30 minutes of eating restaurant food. That seems to be too fast. Even fast-acting laxatives, as far as I can see, don't work much sooner than an hour and unaccelerated food takes about three to 12 hours to pass through one's system.

The first answer here which, to me, seems to help anonymous is the suggestion that s/he might be eating more, which is forcing what is already in the gastrointestinal tract outward at a far faster than usual rate--though 20 or 30 minutes still seems too fast. The best answer, though, is anxiety.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:42 PM on January 18, 2005

Something else that may be a cause - when you dine out, do you finish with coffee? Caffeine is a notorious trigger for me - if I have a good strong cappuccino in the morning, there better be nothing between me and the loo. For everyone's sake!
posted by coriolisdave at 7:46 PM on January 18, 2005


Anxiety, or a form thereof, is almost certainly the cause. It may not manifest as what you would, subjectively, refer to as anxiety though. You can forget about a food additive, and salt and / or sodium are obviated by the fast food tolerance.

Intestinal motility is usually accelerated by even mild stress.

Irritable bowel syndrome is essentially a dressed up term for a nervous gut, and essentially a variant of normal. I tell people the gut in every person is as unique as their own personality (which anyone knows who has been able to coax a talk about their friend's bowel habits).

Not to appear dismissive of the other suggestions here, but you will drive yourself around the bend trying to trace it to an additive. Things like this are very good at planting mistaken cause and effect circumstances in people's heads. You would not believe how common this is in the general population.

Best advice - take one or two immodium before going out. If not, ask your doc about lomotil.
posted by docpops at 7:46 PM on January 18, 2005

I have the same problem BUT Chinese and Thai food do it too. I suspect it's either the diet cola or the fact I no longer have a gall bladder. But it only happens after I eat out, and generally a heavy meal. Stomach cramps are a part of the deal. Interestingly, it doesn't seem to happen after fast food, and it doesn't happen at home.

It also doesn't happen after church covered-dish dinners, for what it is worth.
posted by konolia at 8:16 PM on January 18, 2005

1. Questionable hygiene of preparers, dishwashers, waitstaff.

2. If you eat rolls in restaurants, they're recycled from rolls not eaten by other patrons. When those are too stale, it gets made into bread pudding.

3. The sneeze guard doesn't do that much. The salad bar is out in open air and that stuff sits for hours. And hours.

4. Your table is wiped down with a much used rag. Your silverware sits on the same table.

5. Smoke from the smoking section.
posted by pieoverdone at 8:28 PM on January 18, 2005

uh, Sangre Azul, it sounds like you may have serious medical problems. Do you see a doctor for this? If not, go. GO NOW. You may really be hurting yourself in the long run.
posted by u.n. owen at 8:28 PM on January 18, 2005

Is anonymous perhaps lactose intolerant or allergic to dairy? Chinese food has almost no dairy, home cooking tends to be comparatively low in dairy, and most other restaurant foods tend to be heavy on dairy.
posted by boaz at 8:47 PM on January 18, 2005

I have this same problem, but only with one resturant (if you can call it that): Carl's Jr.

I can eat anywhere else (fast food, nice food, curbside tacos) and be fine, but literally any item from Carls brings the bad poop within literally 20-30 minutess of finishing. It was so predictable and regular that I swore off the place, even though it's the only conveniently located food outlet where I work (although I think this may have been a blessing in disguise). So I would like to know if anything can bring shit down the chute that fast, because as Mo Nickels pointed out, this is faster than any mortal laxative could hope to match.
posted by rooftop secrets at 9:01 PM on January 18, 2005

Pizza Hut used to do it to me, I had to stop going. Other Italian food sometimes, and the more frequent I eat out the more likely the reaction. Might have taken an hour, rather than 20 minutes, but it definitely happened fast.

I have had occasional panic attacks, but considering the issue of frequency above, and the fact that I was always supper comfortable at that Pizza Hut (the staff at that location were great) I don't really buy the anxiety thing.

I think it might be early indication that the crappy North American diet is catching up to you (us). Most of us here are 20-35, and most of us probably don't get nearly enough fiber or fruits/vegetables. Sugar in the pop, oil in the food, preservatives on the salad, and way too much white flour in the pasta and garlic bread all sound like likely causes for a problem.
posted by Chuckles at 9:29 PM on January 18, 2005

It's times like this you just know AskMe is the good shit.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:45 PM on January 18, 2005

McDonalds. I have a Big Mac and I'm like an oil refinery on the NJ Turnpike spewing toxic sulfurous brown clouds. And rocket-powered turbo-charged diarrhea. This is also within 20-30 minutes and only McDonalds gives me this reaction. I haven't eaten there in years.
posted by TimeFactor at 9:49 PM on January 18, 2005

By the way, there is the gastrocolic reflex, which triggers a bowel movement shortly after eating, but that doesn't explain why only certain foods seem to trigger it. Maybe when you're at home you just don't notice? Or maybe you eat more when you're out.

(Linked page worth it just for graph showing "distance to anal verge.")
posted by kindall at 9:58 PM on January 18, 2005

What docpops said.
posted by reflecked at 1:28 AM on January 19, 2005

There's a local pizza place that has done that to me a few times. I can eat any other pizza without a problem but this place (which I'll call "Pizza Joint") does something horrible to my insides. Now that my friend has noticed it does the same thing to him, we refer to any critical pooping situation as "having the Pizza Joints". Also, we stopped eating there.
posted by stefanie at 2:02 AM on January 19, 2005

I'd just like to warn people about docpops' advice. You should NOT take Immodium AD before you have diarrheal (is that a word?) symptoms. When I was in college, a friend of mine (I swear to GOD it wasn't me) was so worried about having to take a crap during his MCATs that he took some Immodium the night before and day of the test. He was horribly and painfully constipated for the next two weeks until, in his words, he "pooped out a brick". Granted, he took, like, three times the recommended amount, but still, taking Immodium or laxatives messes up your digestion/expulsion just as much as sleeping pills messes up your sleeping, so use them sparingly.
posted by emptybowl at 5:55 AM on January 19, 2005

docpop didn't advise anyone to take 3 times the recommended dose, or to take it often. Your friend did an idiotic thing. Idiots have bad experiences and are not the standard to measure by.

A mild anti-diarrheal is one of the first-line strategies for people who have IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), and anyone who takes a medication without first reading AND following the instructions ......... *sigh*

Second-line strategy is to always have some clean knickers in your pocket, bag or the boot of your car. Your friend, by analogy, would carry a whole suit of clothes. (joke)
posted by reflecked at 6:07 AM on January 19, 2005

emptybowl, I read your username as "emptybowel", fitting I think for the thread.

I get anxious around large groups of people that I don't know, it's not a conscious thing, but I am always on edge. Usually it's at a restaurant, and I always get the same symptoms as you, unless it's a restaurant that I've been to many times.

I can't offer much more advice than to try to relax, be aware of any anxiety, and maybe drink a beer or three.
posted by jackofsaxons at 6:10 AM on January 19, 2005

EZ Pass on the Poop Shoot Expressway

I smell a band name.
posted by adampsyche at 6:11 AM on January 19, 2005

I'm agreeing with whomever said it could be butter/dairy -- if you are lactose intolerant, this can be a trigger. And my hub the doc says the "everybody out!" message to empty the bowels can happen as quickly as you're describing, even though your body has certainly not had a chance to digest whatever's freaking it out.
posted by mothershock at 6:32 AM on January 19, 2005

I'll second/third boaz and mothershock regarding lactose intolderance. I recently finished tracking what I ate versus the Mystery Poops that would plague me pretty constantly. I found milk or dairy to be at the root of each one. Symptoms included The Poem ("Here I sit broken hearted, had to poop but only farted"), diarrhea, and, er, foam. It was not pleasant at all.

I now have some Lactaid on hand most everywhere I eat and will take some when I know I'm having a slew of dairy.

Also, are you taking any vitamins with dinner/meals? They'll do it to me too, but in a different form than the lactose problems.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 6:57 AM on January 19, 2005

I have this problem when I eat at Ponderosa. Whenever I go there, no matter what I eat, I'll get diarrhea shortly thereafter. There's only one in the area these days, and I don't go there anymore, but I used to eat there all the time til this started happening. It also happens when I eat some of the Hamburger Helper flavors (but not all). Most things, I'm fine.
posted by SisterHavana at 7:34 AM on January 19, 2005

I have nothing to add (except sympathy), but The Poem almost made me laugh out loud in the middle of class.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 7:56 AM on January 19, 2005

This sounds like IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).

"Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) occurs when muscles in your intestines contract faster or slower than normal. This causes pain, cramping, gassiness, sudden bouts of diarrhea, and constipation." --

Since you report that this happens in most restaurants -- is there a particular kind of food you like to eat at a restaurant? More salads? A certain kind of dressing? I'm betting you have an allergy or a form of IBS or both.
posted by ?! at 7:57 AM on January 19, 2005

Family-style Italian places get me (Buca di Beppo, Maggiano's, etc.). I'm from the anxiety school of thought as well. What helps me is fiber supplements. I take about 5 to 7 Metamucial capsules a day and that helps me stay "regular". It has the added benefit of increased confidence so I'm less anxious when eating out.
posted by mauriteb at 8:07 AM on January 19, 2005

To a gastroenterologist, go.

It does sound a lot like something triggering IBS.

Restaurants use a ton of butter and oil, but also a lot of foul synthetic stuff purchased in 55-gallon drums from suppliers, such as this, and this, and this.
posted by enrevanche at 8:29 AM on January 19, 2005

Tumbleweed's beef taco salad does it to me every time. Their chicken taco salad doesn't.
posted by Alylex at 10:14 AM on January 19, 2005

Sangre Azul just sounds hypoglycemic. If s/he went to a doctor with that complaint, the doctor would test for hypoglycemia. This consists of making you go without food and seeing if you get stupid and cranky and sick, which s/he already knows. Then the doctor would tell Sangre Azul to make sure s/he ate regularly, which s/he already does.

Unless, of course, it's something entirely different... (the risk in self-diagnosis.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:23 AM on January 19, 2005

There are two aspects to IBS that could cause this problem:

1) As kindall pointed out, the gastrocolic reflex is in play and the act of eating is what triggers the urge. This accounts for the short amount of time between stimulus and response.

2) Anxiety can trigger and reinforce the urge. My need to go is directly proportional to the inconvenience/embarrassment of getting to the bathroom. Not a problem at home, a mild hassle in a fast-food place, major concern in a formal dining scenario. This is a positive feedback loop: gotta go, anxious because I can't, anxiety makes me need to go more, etc.
posted by forrest at 11:29 AM on January 19, 2005

I'm going through something very similar right now. After several tests, and various medications, my doctor and I have concluded that it is the body reacting to stress and anxiety. If you had a bad experience at restaurant X once, your body may just be saying "it's going to happen again, so I may as well just go with it."

I could go into a lot of detail, but I'm a little short on time right now. If you would like to email me, please feel free. (it's in my profile)
posted by melissa at 12:36 PM on January 19, 2005

Yes, Zed_Lopez, it is a degree of hypoglycemia. I forgot to add that little bit in my first sentence. I work around it by eating regularly, and if forced to eat out, stick with salads as often as possible, as they are served early and make me feel more sated than just breadsticks. Plus, there is (hopefully) less butter in the salad.
posted by Sangre Azul at 12:43 PM on January 19, 2005

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