How Long Does It Take To Digest Food? A Journey Into Your Gut
Ever wondered how long your body actually takes to turn that big plate of delicious food you eat into…well, you know what? Well, you're in for a treat! Because in this article we're going to hitch a ride on a small bite of food and follow it through your body like some sorta GI-crazed Willy Wonka ride! We'll not only learn exactly what is involved in digestion, but we'll also see how important all the different stages of digestion are. And of course, you’ll finally discover how long it takes to digest your food from start to finish.
Table of Contents
This might just be one of the most popular questions we get asked. And the best place to start is by quickly showing you a short video of how the digestion process works.
So as you can see you chew some food. It then slides down your esophagus. The gastric juices in your stomach then get to work further digesting it. Then it is released to your small intestine where nutrients are absorbed.
Not long after it is passed onto your large intestine for final breakdown. And finally it exits the body in the form of a bowel movement. Now in terms of how long this all takes, well, if you’ve ever tried to find answers to this question online, you’ve probably only received rough approximations of transit time.
1. How long does it take to digest food?
For example, in response to how long does it take to digest food, the world renowned Mayo Clinic simply states:
“It takes about 6 to 8 hours for food to pass through your stomach and small intestine, and it takes about 36 hours for food to move through the entire colon. All in all, the whole process takes about 2 to 5 days”.
Now while that sort of answer is interesting, it left us wondering…where are the studies to back this up? After all, here at Essential Stacks we pride ourselves on always teaching you how the gut works and how you can improve your digestive health based on studies. So of course, our research team decided to do some digging for you.
2. How long to digest food (based on research)
And thankfully we found an amazing study from 2014 that was published in the Journal of Neurogastroenterology and Motility. Finally an answer based on research!
So basically what happened in this study is…
- Researchers used a wireless capsule that patients could swallow after eating a meal
- The capsule would then hitch a ride alongside the food and go through the entire digestive system
- During this time it was sending data on exactly how long each stage of digestion took
And here is what the researchers found.
As you can see the normal ranges for transit time were:
- 2-5 hours in the stomach
- 2-6 hours in the small intestine
- and 10-59 hours in the large intestine.
- Meaning the journey from start to finish was about 10-73 hours long.
Now to make this a bit easier for you to visualize, our research team put together a table. And we also calculated the average transit time of these ranges, to give you a clearer answer.
Section of GI Tract
10 - 20 seconds
2 - 3 seconds
2 - 5 hours
2 - 6 hours
10 - 59 hours
14 - 70 hours ~ ½ a day to 3 days
42 hours ~ just under 2 days
So as you can see now, food takes a similar amount of time to digest in the stomach and small intestine, with both taking around 4 hours. By contrast, when food gets to the large intestine it hangs around for quite a while…taking on average…34.5 hours to pass through there.
Overall, as we can see from the table, food will take about 42 hours or just under 2 days to be fully digested and turned into a beautiful bowel movement!
3. Why can digestion be faster or slower?
Now, while this gives us a good idea of normal digestion times, it’s worth noting that your digestion can be faster or slower.
For example, if you eat protein or fat dominant foods like meat, which contain complex molecules, it might take longer to break down - especially compared to say carbohydrate-rich foods like fruit.
Digestion speed will also depend of course on how much you eat, as well as when you eat it.
And then of course, there are other factors that can impact transit speed, such as:
- Stress levels
- And of course any underlying GI issues you might have.
So now you have the most accurate answer to how long food takes to digest, let’s take a quick look at what your body is actually doing at each stage of digestion. That way you can understand why the transit time of each section differs.
4. Your digestive system is like a restaurant kitchen
And to make this easy for you to understand, I’m going to explain all of this by likening your digestive system to the kitchen of a good restaurant.
- So as you’ll soon see, your mouth is like the kitchen hand - doing the first and simplest line of food prep.
- Your stomach is like the sous chef - doing all the heavy lifting of the cooking process.
- Meanwhile, your small intestine, well, that is the head chef - like a mini Gordon Ramsay living inside you. And its job is to do the final cooking work and decide what gets sent out to the customer (which in your case is your bloodstream).
- Finally, the large intestine is a bit like the dishwashing crew, meaning it focuses on doing all the clean up work.
4. Digesting food with your mouth (10-20 seconds)
So first up, let’s talk about how your body digests food using your mouth. Obviously, your teeth - like any good kitchen hand - will work hard to break down the food into smaller and more digestible pieces.
But also, the act of chewing itself works to smartly release additional saliva into your mouth, which is packed with enzymes that can break down the starches in the food you eat.
Even cooler, the mucin in saliva will help make the little bits of food nice and slippery, so they can easily slide down your esophagus and into your stomach.
So although this process only takes 10-20 seconds, it is vital for making the next stages of digestion easier.
5. Digesting food in your stomach (2-5 hours)
Once the food slides down the esophagus, it ends up in your stomach. And quite simply, your stomach’s job is to prepare the food so your small intestine can digest it. And to really get this picture into your head, you can imagine your highly acid stomach (the sous chef) working really hard to cook the food, while your small intestine (the head chef) is waiting for it.
Now, here’s the really cool thing about your stomach - although we don't really feel it, our stomach will basically go into a digestion frenzy the minute food arrives. So while you are all calm and eating away like it's no big deal, inside your stomach the powerful gastric juices, in particular hydrochloric acid and an enzyme called pepsin, will be busy breaking down your food.
And of course, they are also supported by powerful muscle contractions in the wall of your stomach.
Once the stomach has finished its work, it will send the food down to your small intestine.
6. Digesting food in your small intestine (2-6 hours)
And here’s what then happens in your small intestine. So first of all, the small intestine will coat the food in enzymes, bile and other digestive juices. Kinda the same way Ramsay would season a dish.
This breaks the food down into delicious micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, amino acids and fatty acids. These are then served up to the hungry diner, which in your case is your bloodstream. And this in turn gives your body the energy it needs to repair and grow.
And of course, whatever part of the food your small intestine doesn’t want to serve up, it sends straight down to your large intestine.
7. Digesting food in your large intestine (10-59 hours)
And like the dishwashing crew at a restaurant, the large intestine will begin to clean things up. And it will do that by drawing water out of the leftover food and returning it to your body. Which is really important for hydration purposes, but also because it helps to turn the leftover food into a semisolid form - meaning your poop!
And I know for the sake of our analogy, we likened the large intestine to the clean up crew of a restaurant. But here’s the thing: your large intestine actually also does some cooking of its own, thanks to the bacteria that live inside it.
So to be fair, it's really like a dishwashing / apprentice cook lovechild! And it has got some seriously impressive digestion tricks…
So basically, the little bacteria in your large intestine are able to feast on the “leftover” food, being the parts of food your small intestine couldn’t digest, but your bacteria can, such as indigestible carbohydrates. And best of all, when they digest this food for us, they produce additional nutrients that your body can absorb, such as vitamin K and K2, as well as B vitamins, biotin, folate, and even healthy fatty acids like butyrate.
These are in turn used by the body - including your intestinal tract - to further repair and strengthen itself. How cool, right!
As you can see, digestion is happening throughout our whole GI tract. From top to bottom.
8. Digestion is a team sport
Meaning digestion is a team sport. And just like a good restaurant kitchen it involves a star-studded team of players. Of course, as with any great team, every player has its own crucial role to serve - from the sous chef to the head chef and even the dishwashing crew. Which also means if one of them breaks down, then all the others suffer.
For example, if your gastric juices like hydrochloric acid or the enzyme pepsin are dropping the ball, your stomach might struggle to do the initial digestion work. And instead of giving your small intestine food it can easily work with, the stomach might end up releasing poorly digested food that the small intestine can’t use easily. And this of course would mean your small intestine - the impatient head chef - might struggle in turn.
Not only might the small intestine find it difficult to serve up the micronutrients to your bloodstream, but it might also get damaged by all the large undigested food particles.
In other words: just like a restaurant kitchen…every stage of your digestion is crucial.
8. How to digest food faster & easier
And if you want to learn how to digest your food easier, then check out the other article we wrote on all the best ways to improve your digestion. In it, we talk about everything from meal timing to which foods pair best with each other, and you can find a link to that in the description below.
9. Product Spotlight - HCL & Enzymes
And just before we finish this article, we wanted to do a quick shout out to 2 products we make here at Essential Stacks, that can also help with your digestion. As these can be really helpful if you experience poor digestion or bloating, and feel like your digestive system has turned into an episode of Kitchen Nightmares.
So as you can imagine most of the time you probably have a great team hard at work in your GI tract. But sometimes you might notice them struggling a bit. And you feel bloated for example.
Well, that’s when it can be smart to send in reinforcements. And the easiest way to do that is by taking HCL, pepsin, bile and digestive enzymes in supplement form. It’s like sending down extra sous chefs and mini Gordon Ramsays into your gut to help with the digestion.
- Upgraded Betaine HCL is a really convenient formula which contains HCL, pepsin and bile, along with digestive bitters. So this will play the role of sous chef in your digestive tract, as it works hard to prepare the food for your small intestine to digest.
- And Pure Enzymes is a broad spectrum formula of 18 different digestive enzymes. So this will play the role of head chef, since it works really well during the second stage of digestion in your small intestine. And this of course means your body can enjoy more of the delicious micronutrients in the food you eat.
So there we go! All the mysteries of what happens to food between our fork and our bathroom, finally explained.
Now, just promise me the next time you eat that you'll take a moment to marvel at just how amazing this digestive system is. And please do what you can to support it.
Because while you're having a nice meal and chatting with your family…your digestive system is working overtime to turn your food into energy your body can use. It loves you! And we should do what we can to love it back.
An evidence hierarchy is followed to ensure conclusions are formed off of the most up-to-date and well-designed studies available. We aim to reference studies conducted within the past five years when possible.
- Systematic review or meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
- Randomized controlled trials
- Controlled trials without randomization
- Case-control (retrospective) and cohort (prospective) studies
- A systematic review of descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method studies
- A single descriptive, qualitative, or mixed-method study
- Studies without controls, case reports, and case series
- Animal research
- In vitro research