i just want to eat only bread.
August 4, 2013 5:51 PM   Subscribe

Help calm me down about my fear of food poisoning.

I have extreme emetophobia which leads to panic attacks. The times in the past 15 years that I wasn't on an SSRI, it got really bad. I have not changed my meds in over two years but I'm starting to have panic attacks after eating or when I wake up fearing that I will get sick from food poisoning.

I am on a low-carb diet and eat more fresh vegetables and meat. I used to feel safer eating bread and things rarely reported by people as making them ill. So I think that's why I currently have more anxiety. Meat in our house is handled and cooked properly - but I guess this may not help in some cases.

An example: earlier tonight we had some Trader Joe frozen Angus burgers (sealed) that we thawed in the fridge. They have been in the fridge for three days. When we opened them, they were brownish on the outside and pink in the middle. Not slimey, no odor. So my boyfriend cooked them until they well done and I ate one. Now I'm in a state of panic that I will get sick because of the color before we cooked them.

Question: based on the description of the burgers, do you think they were bad? Is food poisoning totally random at times no matter what you do? It seems common.

I have a therapist and am seeing my psychiatrist in a week since I'm having panic attacks again.
posted by KogeLiz to Food & Drink (25 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: That sounds like meat I would eat, yeah. Red meat oxidizes to brown really quickly, and it doesn't mean it's going bad. Here's an old Ask on the subject.

That said, it sounds like you've correctly identified your problem as anxiety/intrusive thoughts. Food poisoning isn't necessarily all that common - I've gotten it once that I know of, and I know exactly the stupid, unusual thing I did to give it to myself. I may have more of a cast-iron stomach than some people, but I strongly doubt I'm out of the normal range.
posted by restless_nomad at 6:00 PM on August 4, 2013 [4 favorites]

The burgers are fine. Meat turns brown in the presence of oxygen. Which existed within that sealed bag, enough to brown the outside of the meat. The pink insides weren't brown because there was no oxygen within the patty.
posted by mollymayhem at 6:00 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Also, please no detailed accounts of food poisoning in your answers!
posted by KogeLiz at 6:02 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Food poisoning does suck and yes I did have it once. Horrible!
But! It's a pretty rare thing, I got it in a community (public) feeding place that some people (maybe like yourself?) would have avoided for just that reason.
Your body is well-qualified to handle anything "iffy", just the pH in your stomach alone will kill most of the baddies.
Keep up your good habits, and to answer your question, based on your description, I bet the burgers were fine.
posted by bebrave! at 6:02 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think I've had food poisoning once. But even then I can't really remember what it was exactly.

The burgers sound fine.
posted by heyjude at 6:04 PM on August 4, 2013

based on the description of the burgers, do you think they were bad?

No, nthing that the grey discoloration is oxidation, not spoilage. It can happen pretty quick.

People eat food that's past its prime all the time. Usually it just tastes bad, or gives an upset stomach or diarrhea. It's rarely dangerous.
posted by jon1270 at 6:06 PM on August 4, 2013

Best answer: No. Burgers turn brown when they oxidize, which is a totally normal process that does not indicate that the meat is going bad. While the absence of sliminess / odor is not conclusive, it's not likely that you've eaten anything that will harm you.

It sounds like you have, as you mention, some anxiety or other issues around this topic, and perhaps (I'm guessing) around the topic of control in a greater sense. That's okay. It's good that you are aware of this and (it sounds) working on it in some way.

The incidence of serious food poisoning in the U.S. is pretty low, considering that it involves an activity that people engage in many times a day and that the food on our plates comes from a very wide variety of sources. That's not to say it doesn't happen or isn't a big deal, but just that it happens very, very rarely and you should not be actively worrying about it once you have taken the necessary precautions (cooking meat to appropriate temps, cleaning your cooking surfaces before and after, avoiding cross-contamination, &c.)

It might help you to take something like a ServSafe course so you can know what the actual, science-based rules of food safety are and follow them in your own home if you like. Your local health inspector may have information about classes.

Breathe easy. It is very, very likely indeed that you are totally safe and fine, and vanishingly unlikely that you aren't.
posted by gauche at 6:08 PM on August 4, 2013 [6 favorites]

As people have alluded, browning on meat is not in itself a sign of rotting, but is an inevitable consequence of myoglobin (the protein that carries oxygen to muscle tissue) being exposed to free oxygen in the air. That doesn't mean that eating brown meat is always a great plan--as this classic AskMe comment points out, the point where oxidative browning becomes really noticeable more or less coincides with the point where bacteria growing on the beef goes from "not a problem for healthy people" to "well...."

For a regular cut of meat I would say don't worry; hamburger is riskier because of its greater surface area. Personally, if it smelled all right, I'd probably go for it, but that probably just indicates that I have more frugality than sense.

Buying whole cuts of beef are safer than buying pre-ground beef; if buying a meat grinder would assuage some of your anxiety, it might be worthwhile (giving up hamburgers is another option, but given the amount of beef dishes that generally involve ground beef-hamburger, but also chili, meatloaf, lasagna etc.)
posted by kagredon at 6:30 PM on August 4, 2013

Before I really was aware how long you can keep meat in a refrigerator before or how it should be stored, I did cook myself some chicken that had gone bad. It took me a while to figure out that the "weird taste" meant that it was spoiled. I noticed the taste, only had a few morsels of it before I threw the rest out, and was fine.

I don't like the sensation of being sick to my stomach or nauseous, so I avoid eating heavy foods late at night, drink moderately, and let my food digest for a while before going to sleep.

Food poisoning is completely uncommon. The thing is that there are so many people in America that even very rare occurrences of food poisoning could lead to illness and death because it would still affect a lot of people, some of whom would be very young, very old, or already have some kind of illness that made them vulnerable. As a consequence, we have just about zero tolerance for food-borne illnesses and make really sure that all of the food is close to 100% safe by the time it gets to your kitchen.

That said, I am not going to reason you out of something you didn't reason yourself into. Along with your psychiatrist and therapist, some kind of specific counter-phobia therapy may be in order.
posted by deanc at 6:34 PM on August 4, 2013

I would cook thoroughly and not give it another thought.

No phobia expertise, but maybe it would help to think of vomiting as something your stomach does to protect you rather than to betray you. It is ejecting the offending material in order to keep that material from harming you. I don't know if I'm on sound physiological footing there, but it's always been a helpful thought for me.
posted by lakeroon at 6:37 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

What would you do if you had cood poisoning? You have access to Trader Joe's and a working fridge so I suspect you have access to medical care.

The scenario does not sound dangerous to me. Instead if spending time freaking out on the Internet, perhaps you should take a moment to make a plan for what you would do IF you actually had a symptom of some sort - which I think is unlikely - and when you have that plan, try to make and keep a promise to yourself to think about other things for three hours. Repeat.

Good luck. Anxiety is a powerful poison and the stuff is everywhere. We need some sort of mental-environmental protection agency to help control this blight.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 7:25 PM on August 4, 2013

I'm also kind of weird about food safety, and I probably would have eaten the burgers. Do you think you would have felt better about them if they'd spent less time in the fridge? If so, maybe you could direct some of your anxious energy into planning meals so that meat and other spoilage-prone foods don't languish in the fridge for days. I get nervous about meat after a couple of days.

I've also only had food poisoning one time. It was from a restaurant, not something I cooked myself, and I've eaten at a lot of sketchy places. I won't pretend that my bout of food poisoning wasn't unpleasant, but it only lasted for a couple of days and then I was as good as new. For me, it was helpful to remind myself during the throes of misery that it was all temporary and I'd feel better soon. I also took a lot of Benadryl, which helped me sleep and reduced my nausea. Maybe having a plan for what you'd do if you actually did get sick would help?
posted by easy, lucky, free at 7:38 PM on August 4, 2013

Have you considered becoming a vegetarian?
posted by oceanjesse at 7:43 PM on August 4, 2013

I also have a fear of food poisoning, although not of vomiting. (It used to be a flat-out phobia. Therapy did help.) Everyday I eat something that inspires at least a little bit of "oh god, listeria and botulism" anxiety.

Unlike other commenters, I have had food poisoning a few times in my life. Food poisoning isn't THAT uncommon, but severe, deadly food poisoning is uncommon - "CDC estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases."

It sucks so much to be hyperanxious about food poisoning and vomiting. Because you have to eat, and eating should be pleasant, and there's always a chance that you'll get sick from what you eat. The only thing that has helped me, has been to consciously, actively accept that risk, and eat anyway. That is the only way I was able to feel in control of the situation again - by acknowledging that I do not and cannot have perfect control, and choosing to go on, anyway.

I know that this sounds like such facile advice in the face of that awful feeling of bottomless panic. It's a simplistic distillation of a lot of hard, scary work. But it's how I started eating like a healthier person again.

(Your burgers are almost certainly fine, but it's not good to give a lot of reassurance to phobic people. It'll briefly taking the edge off, but will reinforce the phobia's perceived legitimacy. In my experience, and according to my therapist.)
posted by Coatlicue at 7:49 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you had food poisoning, you would be too busy dealing with the food poisoning (getting too nauseous to function, bathroom troubles, vomiting) to worry about whether or not you had food poisoning.

Your anxiety is trying to trick you into uncertainty because that is where anxiety thrives. But, it's a trick, because when something is actually wrong, you know it's wrong. You don't wonder about it. You don't convince yourself. You just deal with it.

Let me say it again. When something is seriously wrong, you know it. You probably don't have food poisoning. You already know that. Your body knows it. I'm not a doctor and I'm not with you, so I can't 100% tell you that you don't have food poisoning. But you'd likely have symptoms by now.

Anxiety is a bitch. Don't let it trick you. Do square breathing (4 seconds in, 4 seconds hold, 4 seconds out, 4 seconds hold).

Are there other sources of stress in your life right now that are being redirected as food anxiety?

Can you do something physical and rythmic to burn off your nervous energy?

How about smelling strong scents, like cinnamon or vinegar, to ground you?

How about asking the other person who ate these burgers if they feel ok?
posted by windykites at 8:39 PM on August 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the opinions and advice so far. My panic has eased this evening.

Have you considered becoming a vegetarian?
Yes, other than steak, I haven't been much of a meat eater (and never fish/seafood). But with the past spinach, tomato and bagged salad incidents in the news - I still get anxiety.

As for having a plan of what I would do if I did end up with food poisoning. - this makes me nervous to think about - I figure there's nothing I could do. From what I've heard you basically can't do anything but be sick. It would be my preference to be in a hospital but I hear it would be quite difficult to get to one because of continuous stomach emptying.

I do have xanax for my panic which helps 75%.

My fear is not of dying from it- just the vomiting.
posted by KogeLiz at 8:48 PM on August 4, 2013

Best answer: Those burgers were fine. 3 days thawing in the fridge is A-OK.

I don't have emetophobia, but I hate vomiting more than nearly anything else in the world, so I understand the direction you're coming from, if not the distance. However, I'm extraordinarily blase about the food I'll eat and the conditions it was stored in -- leftovers left out all night, food that's been in the fridge for a couple of weeks; heck, this morning I ate sausages for breakfast that I put in there to thaw last Thursday, ten days ago. I defrost chicken on the counter. Etc.

I have never had food poisoning. I'm 38. I once had an iffy fried oyster from a clam shack and spent the next three hours pooping, and another time vomited exactly once after eating street food all day at a festival, but that's the closest I've come. I mention these incidents only so that you know that even if you do eat food that is over the line, the consequences (while not great) are not always horrifyingly dire, with continuous stomach emptying &c. And in both those cases, onset was pretty fast -- within an hour for the oyster, within probably two hours for the street food.

I agree with commenters above that your true issue is your anxiety. Anxiety sucks, and is a real problem; I'm glad you're seeing your psychiatrist. Good luck.
posted by KathrynT at 10:30 PM on August 4, 2013 [3 favorites]

The thought of having to vomit can often escalate me into a panic attack, even though I know logically it is often the fastest way to feel better from whatever it is, so I understand a bit of where you're coming from. I have gone to stupid lengths to keep myself from it, and have done a lot of thinking about why it upsets me and how to cope with my upset and so-on.

The thing that helps me the most is knowing that there is somebody who will help take care of me. It is scariest for me when I begin to feel sick and am alone, or worst of all, traveling by myself. In your question you use plural pronouns ("our house") and reference a boyfriend. Is he live-in? Do you have other family members? I think it might help you to sit down with them, explain your problem, and ask them to help you come up with a plan for what anybody should do in case they get sick. These are the types of things your family should be able to promise - caring for each other when you're not well.

So even if, in the very unlikely circumstance that you became very ill and couldn't leave your bathroom for more than a couple minutes, you'll always have the assurance that someone in your family is a phone call or text away, and they will, too. (My best friend and I refer to this as the "hold your hair back clause".) If you're traveling alone, it's a good habit to get into to identify the person who is trained in emergency response - in the case of flying, every flight attendant has mandatory training and it's their job to help you.

I know that it's not so much the illness or dying as it is the action of vomiting itself, but it's much easier to confront the fear of it knowing that someone who cares for you will be nearby if it comes to that.
posted by Mizu at 10:56 PM on August 4, 2013

I just want to chime in to give you no detailed report of food poisoning, since the last mild case I may have had is forty years ago when I was a kid:

--- I made it through my dorm and early professional years, the years as a parent, a few years as single, and these final ten years carnivorously but without food poisoning. --- [I also don't know how the blink tag works.]
I'm also low carbing (more or less).

Good hygiene and rational, repeatable methods in the kitchen are really good things to have: they give you the feeling of being in control. Another thing I'd consider: buy a good kitchen aid and grind your burger beef yourself, fresh. No "three days in the fridgeing"! It will make your life so much happier.
posted by Namlit at 1:41 AM on August 5, 2013

Best answer: I had severe, severe emetophobia as a child, so I'm kind of skeeved out by posters shrugging and saying what's the worst that could happen if you get sick. The worst thing about emetophobia is that panicking about nausea and vomiting can bring on a wicked case of psychogenic nausea, which can be just harrowing. I totally understand how debilitating this fear can be.

You're working on your phobia with a therapist, which is awesome and important. A next step might be educating yourself on food science. I adore Kenji Lopez-Alt's blog on Serious Eats. Cooks Illustrated is also worth the money, as their recipes are reassuringly 'sciencey' with tips on food safety. Namilt's advice is also spot on. A combination of information and routine will help you feel in control.
posted by nerdfish at 4:12 AM on August 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

I really, really hate vomiting. I have a pretty good stomach, but have had food poisoning a few times, once from salmon, twice from restaurant food, from places that weren't notorious, and once from vegetarian food prepared unsafely by a vendor and sold in stores. (not specifying because I don't want to add to any food avoidance) It's really not fun, and I have learned some coping skills. If my stomach feels pretty unsettled, I get a glass of water and take sips. The action of swallowing helps settle the muscles that cause vomiting. Ginger is a mild anti-emetic. I keep ginger ale in the house in case of the flu, and also it's comforting if I have a cold. Ginger tea is good, too.

To be really safe from food-borne illness, limit use of ground beef and cook it well. Follow the recommendations for food in countries with sketchy water, which means rinsing all fruits and washing leafy greens well.

Good luck with the therapy; panic attacks and anxiety are miserable, but you can learn to manage them.
posted by theora55 at 7:13 AM on August 5, 2013

One additional thing to keep in mind is that milder cases of food poisoning doesn't necessarily involve nausea or vomiting. I have had what I assume was food poisoning a handful of times (from eating out, but I eat out all the time) and my symptoms were all, um, at the other end. And as KathrynT mentioned, my symptoms were also not catastrophically intense.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:42 AM on August 5, 2013

Best answer: The times in the past 15 years that I wasn't on an SSRI, it got really bad. I have not changed my meds in over two years but I'm starting to have panic attacks after eating or when I wake up fearing that I will get sick from food poisoning.

You know that worrying about food poisoning is a symptom of your anxiety rather than part of a rational thought process, and that the medications you take help you control that anxiety. So why bother trying to combat this phobia, which is by definition an irrational fear, with logic? Combat it with mental healthcare. If your meds haven't changed in 2 years but your symptoms are getting worse, maybe your meds need to change. Talk to your prescribing doctor.

It would be my preference to be in a hospital but I hear it would be quite difficult to get to one because of continuous stomach emptying.

If that were true, I'd get out of seeing at least 1 or two patients every shift in the emergency department for the rest of my life! Yet somehow they manage to show up all day, every day..... so, what you have heard are, unfortunately for me, lies. The upside is that it is also not true that there is nothing you can do to treat food poisoning. Food poisoning is very easy to treat. IV fluids and Zofran are the miracle cure. I can usually turn people around quite quickly. How about asking your doctor for a script for a couple of Zofran oral dissolving tablets you could keep on hand in case a problem ever started? Might be reassuring to have an effective med in your bathroom cabinet. I always say that if they ever made Zofran available over the counter, business in the ED would plummet.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:26 AM on August 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I used to be so worried about food poisoning that my idea of a Sunday roast dinner was my Mum's yorkshire puddings and gravy. I've become a lot better through educating myself about food, plus listening to my Mum :-)

For instance a pack of ham will say to consume within 2 days. But cooked meat is ok for up to 5 days. I've left parmesan cheese out of the fridge for 24hours, then put it back and it was fine. I've eaten cream cheese that was about two weeks past its use by date and was fine. I had a pheasant that I brought reduced, froze it then defrosted it. Two days after I defrosted it I cooked it and was still fine.

I found it helped to think of how food used to be hung. For instance beef should ideally be hung for 21 days to allow the enzymes to start breaking down the tissue as this makes it more tender and tastier. Pheasants should be hung for at least a week for the best flavour (when I was a kid we had a brace hanging in the bathroom for a week). Burgers you need to be more careful off as the outside gets mushed up into the middle transfering bugs into the middle of it.

There was also a program on ITV about use by dates on food. The presenter ate only food past its use by date for two weeks. He ate minced beef a week out of date and chicken two weeks out of date. He didn't get ill, as he ensured everything was cooked thoroughly and to the correct temperature. It inspired me to eat some minced beef a day past its use by date when it was starting to get that horrible smell. Again I was fine eating it. Obviously I'm not saying to take lots of risks, but just to educate yourself more about the science behind food safety. My Mum has worked in the staff canteen of a large British supermarket, and they'd get given the food past its use by and best before date to cook with, as manufactures take days off to counteract the fact that they have no control over how it's stored when you get it home.

Also buy a meat thermometer, it puts an end to any worries about food as if the food maintains the correct temperature for two minutes it's safe. This is fantastic especially if you have a young chicken or chicken wrapped in bacon, as the meat can sometimes be a bit pink in those instances.
posted by Ranting Prophet of DOOM! at 3:58 PM on August 5, 2013

...it would be quite difficult to get to one because of continuous stomach emptying.

From someone who has had migraines that caused severe nausea where I couldn't tolerate anything beyond a few sips of water: grab a box of garbage bags to use to keep things from being messy and a roll of paper towels to clean up with. That'll get you to the hospital if you need it. If you're worried about having to drive yourself, plan to go slow then pull over, open the door, and lean out when you need to. (Ideally you wouldn't drive at all, as you'd be distracted and not that safe, but if you find the idea of having plans in place helps you, that's the one to have.)
posted by telophase at 11:29 AM on August 7, 2013

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