Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD
What is OCDOCD SubtypesWhy do I always think my food is poisoned?

Why do I always think my food is poisoned?

4 min read
Jennifer Dalimonte, LCSW

By Jennifer Dalimonte, LCSW

Reviewed by Taylor Newendorp

Oct 21, 2022

Possibly related to:

It may be OCD

If you find yourself perpetually concerned that your food has been tainted in some fashion—maybe even poisoned—that may be a sign of OCD. We understand what you’re experiencing and want you to know that you are not alone. These concerns likely belong to a subtype of OCD called Contamination OCD; here’s what that might mean.

We have established that you likely persistently worry about your food having poison or unsafe substances in it: possible bodily fluids or parts from those who prepared it, unknown meat substitutes, bacteria, viruses etc. Perhaps you don’t necessarily fear diseases, but you’re more about food having small plastic particles within it, maybe contact solution, battery acid, or bleach? The list is truly endless. It all boils down to concerns with your food somehow having contaminants within it and how it could impact us, others we care about, and those who care about us. All of the above would be identified as intrusive thoughts, or the “obsession” part of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). 

In response to OCD intrusive thoughts, there are often compulsions present: mental or physical actions done in an attempt to decrease our distress response or to keep something terrible from happening. In reality, they only create a false sense of temporary safety before another thought is triggered. In Contamination OCD, there can be a lot of mental compulsions occurring, such as running through worst-case scenarios in your head, worrying about the “what ifs,” and mentally “checking” to see how we are feeling. There can also be physical compulsions, such as repeatedly checking the food itself, or even the physical environment.  You may frequently dispose of food or let it spoil out of fear of what could be within the food. Often, people avoid any places where food could be contaminated, feeling that they are doing their best to keep themselves and others safe.

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What if my contamination fears are legitimate?

We understand how legitimate these fears can feel; it can be very hard to disregard the lightning bolt of fear that moves through your body when the thought passes, “What if that’s poisoned?” From a young age we are given messages about food safety, proper cooking and food storage techniques, and even coached to check our Halloween candy for possible contaminants. 

Unfortunately, OCD takes this well-intentioned information and distorts the actual risk associated with possible contaminants in food. When it sees any possible risk, it often misrepresents this possibility as a probability: “What if that cake has poison? I’ll die if I eat it.”  This is where OCD gets us: it finds something we fear (death/harm, etc.) and creates rules about how we are able to behave as a result. Suddenly, our very most favorite food has become something we must fear, all because our brain has latched onto the slightest shred of uncertainty about its safety.

How you can treat your fear of being poisoned by food

If you feel that your fear about food being contaminated in some fashion is causing you to suffer, I want you to know that there is hope! Not only are you in the right place to meet others who understand what is happening, but you are in the best place to receive support and learn about treatment that can allow you to live life on your own terms. The best treatment for OCD is a therapy called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), that works by helping to identify and challenge your fears without using compulsions. In essence, it breaks the cycle of fear and false safety that OCD has created. 

ERP teaches that thoughts, feelings, and urges do not have to have meaning, they can be background noise. It also teaches that we are able to sit with discomfort and uncertainty, and that we can survive without using compulsions to rid ourselves of perceived danger. The best thing it teaches us is that we can tolerate and even learn to embrace distress over time. 

While treatment is always individualized based on everyone’s own experience with OCD, many will engage in similar exposures during treatment. A specialty-trained OCD therapist will encourage you to be in charge of your own pacing for exposures and will support you as you begin confronting your fears with food and contaminants specific to your fears. 
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Taylor Newendorp

Taylor Newendorp, M.A., LCPC, has specialized in the treatment of OCD since 2011. He is a former clinical supervisor for The Center for Anxiety and OCD at AMITA Behavioral Health Hospital in Illinois, and is currently the Regional Clinical Director for NOCD.