How long does it really take to digest food? Experts explain

You may be surprised to learn that digestion actually begins before you even take your first bite of food. This is called the cephalic phase of digestion and is triggered by the mere sight or smell (or even the thought or taste) of food as your body prepares to eat.

Once you’ve taken your first bite, the saliva in our mouths moistens and helps digest food, for example amylase for carbohydrates and starches. As nutrition scientist Ashley Jordan Ferira, Ph.D., RDN explains, “Along with chewing, your mouth is where digestion, or the breaking down of food into smaller pieces, begins. In fact, your mouth (aka oral cavity) has its own unique set of microbes known as the oral microbiome.

From our mouth, the foods, drinks and supplements we consume travel through the pharynx and esophagus to the stomach where they are further broken down. This ongoing digestion occurs through unique acidic compounds, as well as protein and fat digesting enzymes, in the stomach. “Muscle contractions in the stomach also aid in the digestive process,” adds Ferira. From chewing our food to digesting our stomach, this movement of food takes about two hours.

Your meal, or “bolus of digested food known as chyme,” Ferira explains, will then travel into the small intestine via the pyloric sphincter where digestive enzymes, many of which are secreted by the pancreas, and bile from the gallbladder break it up into even smaller pieces before they are absorbed from the gut into the bloodstream for use by the whole body.

“These smaller constituents carried and used throughout our bodies are peptides that make up proteins, sugars that make up carbohydrates, fatty acids that include fats, as well as vitamins, minerals, and even phytonutrients,” Ferira shares. . “A unique range of probiotic species reside in the small intestine, also interacting with our dietary intake,” adds Ferira.

You can expect food to pass through the muscle-lined small intestine for one to five hours depending on what you’ve eaten (more on that later). moves along all remaining digested and undigested compounds.

The large intestine section of the intestine is where another unique habitat of gut flora microbiota resides. “Of course, this assumes that our dietary intakes and supplements feed gut microbial abundance and diversity daily,” adds Ferira.

Another important act is carried out at the level of the colon: mass gain. As significant amounts of water are absorbed from the intestine into the bloodstream of the small intestine, “the final water absorption activity occurs in the colon, to functionally solidify the remaining indigestible components of our diet, creating stool,” says Ferira.

The colon is also where certain bacteria work to ferment the remaining major nutritional components (e.g., prebiotic fibers) to glean additional nutrients and “produce unique nutritional byproducts like short-chain fatty acids that confer health benefits,” says Ferira. In fact, consuming fiber will have a direct impact on how long food stays in the large intestine, and fiber helps bulk up the stool that will then exit your body (via the rectum and finally the anus) at the end. of the digestive tract.

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