Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD
What is OCDOCD SubtypesFear of food poisoning

Fear of food poisoning

7 min read
Sara Anderson, LPC

By Sara Anderson, LPC

Reviewed by Patrick McGrath, PhD

Feb 29, 2024

Possibly related to:

If you worry a lot about whether your food could be contaminated in some way—that, say, it might have germs or bacteria, or if you have strict rules or routines around eating because of a fear about contamination, or maybe if you physically feel nauseous after a meal because you think it could make you sick—it may be a sign of a subtype of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) called food poisoning OCD. As a therapist who specializes in OCD, it’s a theme I’ve seen many times.

But let’s back up for a second and talk about OCD in general: It’s a mental health condition where you have intrusive thoughts, urges, and images (obsessions), that are often followed by repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions) that are done to alleviate the distress you feel about your obsessions, or to prevent a feared outcome. The problem is that this tactic only works for a short while, and then you’re back to the same cycle of obsessions, anxiety, and compulsions.

Common signs of food poisoning OCD

With food poisoning OCD, you may find yourself in the doctor’s office a lot with stomach pains, or GI issues that you worry could be caused by what you ate. You might need to wash or clean your food in a particular way, or throw out any food you feel could be contaminated. You may avoid going to restaurants or eating at other people’s houses because you can’t be sure how your food was handled, prepped and cooked. You may also spend an excessive amount of time researching food poisoning symptoms, or monitoring food recalls. 

Some food poisoning-related obsessions include thoughts like: 

  • Did someone poison my food?
  • Did my food become contaminated with something harmful, like fecal matter, chemicals, or bacteria?
  • Is my food spoiled? Is it out of date?
  • Is there mold on my food?
  • What if I get food poisoning?
  • Is this feeling a sign of food poisoning?

How can I tell if it’s OCD, and not anxiety or actual food poisoning?

This is a good question! The difference is that with food poisoning OCD, the obsessions and compulsions you experience aren’t thoughts that pop into your head and then you can dismiss. And they’re not proportional to the actual danger of getting sick from what you eat. But where that line is might be hard to know if you have OCD. What I can tell you is that someone with this particular condition will spend a significant part of their day thinking about and engaging in behaviors to prevent food poisoning. You may notice that if you don’t perform compulsions, your anxiety increases and your thoughts about food poisoning become more intense. Additionally, you’ll experience distress and impairment in your day to day life as a result of your obsessions and compulsions.

Compulsions may come in various forms with this type of OCD, including:

  • Seeking reassurance from others or yourself that your intrusive thoughts aren’t true. You might ask yourself, I washed these veggies, right? Of course I did. I won’t get sick. Or you may question whether your friend tested the temperature of the steak to make sure it was well done.
  • Researching. Maybe you spend hours asking “Dr. Google” about expiration dates, recommended storage temperatures for food items, or searching for symptoms of food poisoning. 
  • Checking. You might scan your body to check for the sensation of having food poisoning.
  • Performing rituals. These can take many forms, but are any process you feel like you must do in order to “feel OK.” For example, you may need to wash asn rewash utensils to make sure they’re clean before you eat. Or you may have to prepare food in a very particular way to feel like it’s safe.
  • Avoiding. This happens when you steer clear of any situation, activity, media, person, place, or other stimuli that triggers your intrusive thoughts. In the case of food poisoning OCD, it could look like avoiding social gatherings that are centered around food.
  • Distracting is the process of trying to drown out your thoughts or worries. You may use substances, television, social media, other people, or anything else that can take you out of your brain.

World-class OCD treatment covered by insurance

NOCD Therapists accept most major insurance plans to help you access the care you need.

Treatment for food poisoning obsessions in OCD

If OCD related to food poisoning is impacting your life, The most successful treatment for OCD is a form of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP). Unlike traditional talk therapy, which can backfire and make OCD worse, ERP—which was developed specifically to treat OCD—is clinically proven to be highly effective in the majority of people.

Here’s how it works: A trained therapist who specializes in OCD will take the time to understand your symptoms and create a custom ERP therapy plan specifically for you. Then, you’ll work together to rank your fears or triggers based on how stressful they seem. To begin with, your therapist will typically prompt you to face a fear that brings on only a mild amount of distress. For example, your therapist might simply show you a photo of a restaurant with food on the table. The fear thoughts—like the idea that you could get sick if you eat that food—will likely come up, but instead of responding with a compulsion, you’ll learn to tolerate the discomfort. By making this conscious choice and seeing that nothing bad occurs, or realizing that you handled the discomfort better than you thought you could, your brain gets the message that there was nothing to fear in the first place.

As your therapy progresses, you’ll tackle triggers that elicit a bit more distress, to conquer bigger fears. With an ERP therapist guiding you, you’ll practice confronting your fears in your everyday life, too, instead of just the controlled setting of therapy. 

Most of the time something amazing happens as a result of this therapy: You won’t be riddled with distress from intrusive thoughts, images, or urges. Your need to engage in compulsions goes away. And the things that matter the most to you won’t feel like they’re at risk of slipping away.  For instance, when you spend time with a loved one, you’ll be able to focus on the connection between the two of you—rather than on whether the salt and pepper shakers on the table are in a perfectly straight line. In essence, you’ll get to live a life that’s free from the grip of OCD.

Working with an OCD specialist to address the thoughts and situations that cause you distress is more accessible than ever thanks to virtual ERP therapy. In fact, peer reviewed research shows live teletherapy sessions of ERP can be more effective, delivering results in less time than traditional outpatient ERP therapy, often in as little as 12 weeks. Want to begin your ERP therapist search? We encourage you to browse the NOCD Therapist Directory. Every NOCD therapist is not only specialized in ERP but trained to deliver treatment online. Choose your therapist and we do the rest, including helping with scheduling and payment. Of course, if NOCD Therapists aren’t the right fit, you can also explore the International OCD Foundation Therapist Directory.

NOCD Therapy user on phone

Recover from OCD with NOCD Therapy

World-class OCD treatment covered by insurance

NOCD therapy can help you live the life you want to live, not the life OCD wants you to live.

Learn more

NOCD Therapists specialize in treating OCD

View all therapists
Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp

Network Clinical Training Director

I started as a therapist over 14 years ago, working in different mental health environments. Many people with OCD that weren't being treated for it crossed my path and weren't getting better. I decided that I wanted to help people with OCD, so I became an OCD therapist, and eventually, a clinical supervisor. I treated people using Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) and saw people get better day in and day out. I continue to use ERP because nothing is more effective in treating OCD.

Gary Vandalfsen

Gary Vandalfsen

Licensed Therapist, Psychologist

I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist for over twenty five years. My main area of focus is OCD with specialized training in Exposure and Response Prevention therapy. I use ERP to treat people with all types of OCD themes, including aggressive, taboo, and a range of other unique types.

Madina Alam

Madina Alam

Director of Therapist Engagement

When I started treating OCD, I quickly realized how much this type of work means to me because I had to learn how to be okay with discomfort and uncertainty myself. I’ve been practicing as a licensed therapist since 2016. My graduate work is in mental health counseling, and I use Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy because it’s the gold standard of OCD treatment.

Want to work with one of our therapists?
Schedule a free call to learn more.

Use insurance to access world-class
treatment with an OCD specialist