A prawn outlined with chalk lays in a crime scene with utensils

Food Expiration: Is It IBS or Food Poisoning?

The cause of unexpected gastrointestinal distress can be hard to pinpoint. After all, just diagnosing IBS is no walk in the park. But, when your gut goes awry, it's easy to place the blame on the usual offender. However, be mindful that your symptoms can be caused by other issues – including a foodborne illness, also known as food poisoning. Learn how to avoid this common mix-up and keep gastrointestinal distress to a minimum by maintaining a safe food environment.

Food poisoning or IBS

While the symptoms of food poisoning ultimately depend on the strand of bacteria, they can easily get confused for an all-too-familiar IBS trigger. Use the lists below to decipher your symptoms to help navigate the proper action plan.1,2

Food poisoning symptoms

  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Fatigue/muscle aches

IBS symptoms

  • Stomach pain/cramps
  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Similar to IBS, people with food poisoning can experience symptoms in a range of severity. While some food illnesses wreak havoc on the body almost immediately, other types may develop over several days. The following foods are at greater risk of causing food poisoning:1

  • Convenience foods like deli meat, pastries, sandwiches, hotdogs, and prepped veggies/fruit
  • Raw or undercooked shellfish, especially oysters
  • Raw or undercooked chicken, turkey, meat, and eggs
  • Unpasteurized milk or cheese
  • Improperly canned or fermented foods
  • Raw sprouts
  • Restaurant leftovers consumed four days after purchase or that were not stored promptly in the refrigerator after arriving home

Pre-chopped and prepared foods are common culprits of food poisoning since they can get easily contaminated. Did the preparer really wash their hands before chopping the watermelon? Was the cantaloupe washed before it was cut? Or perhaps the food prep station wasn’t adequately sanitized after being used to cut raw chicken. Or maybe the food was washed using unsafe water. In other words, there are many ways items can become tainted, making convenience foods a common culprit of food poisoning.

Food expiration dates

Don’t be fooled by the label. The "sell by" date and "use by" dates have different meanings. "Use by" describes the recommended day for peak quality – it doesn’t necessarily mean the food is no longer safe. To avoid unwanted illness while minimizing waste, here are some suggested time frames for using food:3

  • Eggs: 3 weeks after the sell-by date
  • Milk: 1 week after the sell-by date
  • Yogurt: 2-3 weeks after the sell-by date (unopened)
  • Raw chicken: 2 days thawed or 9 months in the freezer
  • Raw ground meat: 2 days after the sell-by date
  • Cut fruit: 3-4 days

Food safety and risk of illness

Don’t let the fear or guilt of wasting food put your body in a compromising position. IBS can present challenges to manage, so why add to the list? I try to avoid discarding food whenever possible, even if it means enduring yet another day of leftovers. But when in doubt, toss it out! If your leftovers are questionable, especially if they don’t pass the sniff test, it’s best not to take the chance.

Eating food beyond its expiration guidelines can have some serious health implications. So, if you find yourself getting triggered by a usually gut-friendly meal, think about your food safety protocol.

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