Digestive health is extremely important for our general well-being. Digestion and the digestive process provide the body with the energy and important nutrients needed for normal functioning. Since digestion is such a complex process, people sometimes wonder whether their organisms process food in the right way. Does it possibly take too long?
If you are not too sure if the time your body needs for digestion of food is normal, there are some general guidelines that should indicate whether you are experiencing problems or not. In general, the digestive process takes from 24 to 72 hours, even though the actual timeline can depend on various factors. Keep on reading for more information on these factors; we’ve also got some other important bits of information about food and digestion in store for you ;).
The Journey of Food Through the Digestive System
In order to understand how long the digestive process normally takes, we should first know which steps it includes and what happens with the food on its journey from your mouth to your esophagus, stomach, small intestine, and finally the large intestine.
The digestion of food starts in your mouth. When you chew your food, saliva breaks down the starches in each mouthful with enzymes, making it easier for you to swallow what you eat.
Once you swallow the food, it travels through your esophagus. Then the muscle called the lower esophageal sphincter relaxes and lets it enter your stomach, upon which it immediately closes in order to make sure the food does not travel back up into your mouth. Remember what happens if this muscle is a bit too keen to relax? Read our article about heartburn to find out and also learn how to counter this problem.
In your stomach, the food gets broken down thanks to the stomach acids, and the mixture of partly digested food then finds its way into your small intestine.
In the small intestine, your pancreas and liver add their digestive juices that speed up the whole process. Nutrients and water get absorbed by its walls and provide your body with all the good things (nutrients) from the food you consumed (hopefully it was something good!). The remaining undigested part of food then continues its way to your large intestine.
It usually takes from 6 to 8 hours for the food to make its journey through the stomach all the way to the small and then large intestine. Once the partly digested food is safely in your large intestine, it can stay there for more than a day and get broken down even more. Any remaining water and nutrients your body could benefit from gets absorbed and the rest is stool that leaves your body once you are ready to have a bowel movement.
In around three days, the food you consumed should have moved through your digestive tract to the final station.
How Long Does Food Take to Digest?
O.K., the theory says that the digestion process can take between 24 to 72 hours. However, the time it takes for your food to digest also depends on your age, gender, metabolism and, among other things, the type and amount of food in question.
You can find numerous food digestion time charts online but they all pretty much include the same type of information. Let’s take a look at the most important bits!
Digesting water happens in no time
If you drink water on an empty stomach, it travels into the intestines immediately. This is why it is good if you drink some water when you wake up as this enables your body to quickly hydrate.
How quickly can we digest other liquids?
If you drink juice more often than water, it will get digested (meaning it will leave your body) in about 20 minutes. Freshly-squeezed juiced can therefore enable a quick “dose of health” through the speedy absorption of vitamins and minerals from fruits and vegetables.
PRO TIP: If you also want to help your body digest other foods faster, drink mineral water. Its mineral content will provide your body with essential nutrients, such as calcium or magnesium, while also speeding up things in your bowels.
Smoothies, unlike juices, retain the fibre from fruits and vegetables mixed together. This is why they fill you up more and the digestive process takes longer (around 30 minutes). Foods that are high in fibre are great for your digestive tract as they help it run more efficiently.
On digesting fruit
Watermelons are the quickest when it comes to fruit digestion, as it only takes them 20 minutes to leave your stomach. Its cousins, melons, as well as oranges, grapefruit, bananas and grapes, will leave your stomach in about 30 minutes.
The majority of other fruits (apples, pears, kiwis, cherries, etc.) should take about 40 minutes to digest.
If you want to avoid digestive issues, it’s best not to mix types of fruit with different food digestion times. The same goes for different types of food.
How about the digestion of vegetables?
Vegetables can take a bit longer to digest than fruit. However, lettuce, cucumber, peppers, tomatoes, and other vegetables containing a lot of water will need just around 30 minutes to leave “stomach land” behind.
Cruciferous vegetables including kale, cauliflower, broccoli, etc. usually digest in 40 minutes.
And then there are the slow ones: carrots, beetroot and other root vegetables are normally digested in about 50 minutes. What’s more, there are also starchy root vegetables, such as potatoes, which, along with butternut squash, artichokes, sweet potatoes, corn etc., take up to 60 minutes to digest.
Digesting grains is take a bit longer
The digestion of different grains and carbohydrates again takes longer than processing fruit and vegetables.
Grains like brown rice, buckwheat and oats can take approximately an hour and a half to exit your stomach, whereas legumes like chickpeas, lentils, beans etc. take even more – around two hours.
The digestion of meat – well, that’s a long story!
Looking for meats that take the least time to digest? Pick non-oily fish (such as cod, catfish, halibut, seafood, etc.), which will leave your stomach in approximately 30 minutes while fatty fish (such as salmon, sardines, trout, etc.) will digest in around 50 minutes.
Other types of meat take longer to digest as the process might last even two days. Chicken and turkey are the quickest options, while beef, lamb and especially pork require a lot more time to fully digest.
On average, skimmed milk and low-fat cheese (such as low-fat cottage cheese or ricotta) take 1.5 hours to digest, whereas whole-milk cottage cheese and soft cheeses will leave your stomach in 2 hours. Whole-milk hard cheeses can take up to 5 hours to properly digest.
And how long do we need to digest eggs?
Egg yolk takes 30 minutes to digest while digesting the whole egg will take 15 minutes longer.
Last but not least: the digestion of seeds and nuts
Seeds that are high in fat (like sesame and sunflower as well as pumpkin seeds) take around 2 hours to digest.
Nuts (raw peanuts, almonds, cashew nuts, walnuts, etc.) require around 2.5 to 3 hours to digest.
IMPORTANT: There’s no need to keep checking your watch 😉
Before you start measuring the time that you need from eating something to leaving it behind in the toilet, we need to remind you that all the above-mentioned times are approximate. They describe how long it usually lasts for a certain type of food to leave the stomach, but there will always be variations, which means there is no reason to panic if your experiences differ from what we’ve just explained.
Depending on the foods you combine, the time of eating and, of course, the way you do it (how you chew), it can also take a bit longer for the waste to leave your body.
However, if you think your digestive system is a bit sluggish, check out our advice on how to speed it up!
And if you want to avoid your digestion slowing down again, find out which foods you should avoid.
Foods Difficult to Digest
If you are wondering what foods are easy/hard to digest, let us first have a look at the ones you should avoid if you do not want them to stop your digestive process.
Fried and fatty foods
Such foods are extremely high in fat and low in fibre, which is why they are never a good decision for your digestion (and general health). There are two possible scenarios that can happen after eating fried foods—they can move through the body too quickly and result in diarrhoea or stay in your digestive tract for a long time, leading to bloating and feeling full.
In general, citrus fruits are good for digestion as they are rich in fibre. However, some people might experience digestive problems for that very reason so make sure you do not consume too many oranges and other citrus fruits at once.
Artificial sugar and fructose
Artificial sugars are difficult to digest and usually travel through your system undigested, therefore not giving your body a lot of nutrients. Moreover, they actually have a negative effect on gut microbes found in your digestive tract, which can lead to many health issues. When consuming too much sugar, you might experience cramps and diarrhoea. And gain weight, of course ;).
Beans are definitely a great food source as they contain a lot of healthy protein as well as fibre, but can be a bit difficult to digest. They often lead to gas and cramps as your body lacks the enzymes needed to break down the sugars in them.
Cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, and others, also include the same sugars found in beans and can therefore be difficult to digest. Try to avoid eating them raw as this will help to make the digestion of food easier.
Dairy products might be difficult to digest for people with lactose intolerance. If you cannot eliminate such foods from your diet, some over-the-counter pills can help you replace the missing enzyme.
Coffee is another common culprit for stomach irritation as it stimulates acid production in the stomach. This can lead to inflammation and, you guessed it, heartburn. Moreover, caffeine found in coffee and other caffeinated drinks acts as a diuretic, often causing dehydration and/or constipation.
Make sure you limit your consumption of coffee and never drink it on an empty stomach as this can increase the chances of indigestion.
Keep a food diary to find the foods that keep your digestion lagging behind
As we are all unique, make sure you find the culprit that causes your digestion problems. And the easiest and most efficient way for this mission to be successful is by keeping a food diary. Eliminate some foods you suspect of slowing down your digestion and observe how your body reacts. Once you have busted the guilty party, avoid it or find an alternative that doesn’t cause you problems ;).
And which Foods Are Easy to Digest?
If you are wondering how to digest food quickly and avoid slow digestion, focus on fast-digesting foods, such as:
- toast: toast is easier to digest than other types of bread as some of the carbohydrates already get broken down during the toasting process;
- white rice: if you are trying to find grains that are easy to digest, choose white rice and avoid brown, black or red rice;
- bananas: they are a great source of carbohydrates, fibre, potassium, and other vitamins and minerals; and most of all—the majority of people do not have problems digesting them;
- eggs: eggs are not only easy to prepare but also easy to digest;
- sweet potatoes: sweet potatoes are a source of soluble fibre that is easier to digest than insoluble fibre and also increases the good bacteria in your intestines;
- chicken: if you would like to keep the meat in your diet, opt for chicken as it is a source of lean protein that helps the body repair itself and takes less time to digest;
- oatmeal: a healthy breakfast option, especially if you prepare it with water and therefore reduce the fat content.
Digestive Problems and Conditions
If you opt for foods that are good for your digestive health but are still experiencing some symptoms of indigestion, you might have problems with digestion of a certain type of food or even suffer from an underlying medical condition. If your problems only include acid reflux, bloating, abdominal pain, cramps, constipation, gas, diarrhoea, and the like from time to time, there is usually nothing to worry about. However, if they visit you quite regularly or become chronic, make sure you contact your doctor as soon as possible.
Here are just some conditions that might be causing your symptoms:
Dairy products might be difficult to digest for people lacking the enzyme needed for digestion of sugars found in milk and other dairy products. As a result, they trigger diarrhoea, stomach cramps, gas, and bloating. Such symptoms are not a cause for concern as they can go away by switching to non-lactose dairy products or using over-the-counter medication that will help your body to replace the missing enzyme.
Gluten in foods containing wheat, rye, and barley causes problems for people with celiac disease. Their bodies identify gluten as something foreign and react by attacking this protein and damaging the intestines as soon as gluten reaches the small intestine.
If you are experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, abdominal bloating and pain, diarrhoea, especially bad-smelling or fatty-looking stool and unexplained weight loss, you might have celiac disease. See your doctor immediately as an untreated disease can lead to complications. There are currently no drugs for celiac disease, however, patients can lead a normal life following a gluten-free diet.
Heartburn, acid reflux and GERD
Those three terms are frequently used interchangeably even though they actually describe different but still related conditions and symptoms.
Acid reflux is quite a common medical condition resulting from stomach acid backing up into your mouth. If acid reflux appears in a chronic and more severe form, it is defined as GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease). Heartburn is a symptom of both acid reflux as well as GERD.
You experience heartburn when stomach acid travels back up to your mouth as your lower esophageal sphincter does not close properly. This might appear as a burning sensation that can be annoying but also problematic, especially if you experience it more than twice per week. If this is the case, contact your doctor as you might actually be affected by GERD.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
This condition (as the name suggests) irritates your bowels and comes with symptoms such as cramps, abdominal pain, constipation, diarrhoea, bloating, and gas. Just like with celiac disease, there is no cure or treatment for IBS, however, dietary changes can help you keep the symptoms in balance.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. How long on average does it take to digest food?
On average, it takes from one to three days to digest food.
2. What does the speed of digestion depend on?
How fast the food travels through our intestines and how it is excreted depends on many factors, especially on age, the level of physical activity and stress, gender, metabolic function, dietary habits (how and how much we eat…)…
3. Which foodstuffs are more difficult to digest?
Digestion can be slowed down by fatty and fried food, dairy products, legumes, cabbage, and products containing refined sugar.
4. What causes indigestion?
Digestion is slowed down by an unhealthy lifestyle together with fatty, spicy food, lack of physical activity and stress. Digestion is also slowed down if we do not drink enough fluids.
5. Does physical activity affect the speed of digestion?
Regular exercise accelerates the peristaltic, i.e. contractions and stretching of intestinal muscles that push the food through the intestines. However, it is not just about exercising. Getting proper rest is equally important.