How Long Does It Take To Digest Food?

The time may depend on your age, the foods you eat, and whether you have certain health conditions.

What happens to food after you swallow it? How long it takes to digest food depends on a few factors, like the type of food you eat or if you have certain health conditions. But in general, the digestive process takes a few days.

Here's what you need to know about what happens during digestion and how long the process usually takes.

What Happens During Digestion?

The body's digestive system comprises many complex and crucial moving parts—hence why it may take so long for the body to digest food. Per a review published in 2021 in Current Research in Food Science, the digestive system comprises two major parts: the digestive tract and accessory organs.  

The digestive tract includes:

  • Mouth
  • Pharynx
  • Esophagus
  • Stomach
  • Intestines

Additionally, the accessory organs of the digestive tract include:

  • Teeth
  • Tongue
  • Salivary glands
  • Liver
  • Gall bladder
  • Pancreas

Essentially, as food makes its way from one end of the digestive tract to the other, the digestive system's different components perform various functions to process the food.

Digestion Begins in the Mouth

The first step to digesting food is putting it in your mouth and chewing it. But your teeth don't do all of the work here. 

During that process, your salivary glands also moisten the food, making it easy for whatever you're eating to pass through your esophagus when you swallow. The esophagus is a tube that carries food and liquids from your mouth to your stomach.

Digestive Enzymes and Stomach Acid Break Down Food

After the food goes down the esophagus, it reaches the lower esophageal sphincter. That muscle relaxes, which allows the food to pass into the stomach. 

Then, the stomach muscles mix your food with digestive juices. Digestive enzymes and stomach acid in the stomach lining help the food break down further. Digestive enzymes are proteins responsible for breaking down food and helping with digestion.

Food Moves to the Intestines and Waste Becomes Stool

Next, the food passes through your small and large intestines. Your small intestine absorbs the digested nutrients and water into the bloodstream. 

Then, your large intestine transforms liquid waste into stool, which moves into the rectum. The rectum stores the stool at the lower end of the large intestine until you push it out during a bowel movement.

How Long Does the Entire Digestive Process Usually Take?

The time it takes to digest food—from when you put it in your mouth to when you excrete it—depends on many factors. That process is also known as your bowel transit time.

"All in all, it takes anywhere from two to five days for people to digest food," Rabia De Latour, MD, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone, told Health. "It varies in everyone."

Many factors affect time differences between people. But for starters, the type of food you're eating plays a role. For example, high-fiber foods can speed up your digestion, said Dr. De Latour.

Simple foods, like non-processed foods, are easier to digest than others, added Dr. De Latour. In contrast, with processed foods, breaking down complex chemicals is difficult for your body.

"Complex sugars, high-fat [foods], and high protein foods will take longer," Christine Lee, MD, a gastroenterologist at the Cleveland Clinic, told Health

Also, your digestive system slows down as you age, said Dr. De Latour. Blood pressure medications, antacids, and narcotics can cause issues with the timing of digestion, like constipation, as well.

Health Conditions That Impact Digestion

Some health conditions can slow or stop digestion or cause it to speed up. 

For example, gastroparesis is a disorder that slows or stops the movement from your stomach to your small intestine even though there are no blockages. Also, dumping syndrome occurs when the digestive process is too fast.

Gastroparesis

Gastroparesis may make you feel full too soon or too long after eating, which causes digestive symptoms such as:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Bloating
  • Pain in the upper abdomen
  • Heartburn

One of the most common causes of gastroparesis is diabetes. Other conditions that can cause gastroparesis include hypothyroidism (when your body doesn't produce enough thyroid hormone), some nervous system disorders, or viral infections in the stomach.

Dumping Syndrome

Dumping syndrome comes in two types: early and late dumping syndrome. Each type comes with unique symptoms. 

Early dumping syndrome starts 10–30 minutes after eating, causing symptoms like:

  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain and cramping
  • Stomach rumbling

Additionally, late dumping syndrome starts between one to three hours after eating, causing symptoms like:

  • Feeling light-headed, tired, or jittery
  • Sweating
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Weakness

Dumping syndrome most commonly occurs after stomach surgeries. People with recently developed diabetes and certain pancreatic disorders or ulcers may also develop it.

How to Improve Digestion

The good news is that many digestive issues can be managed with lifestyle changes. Try the following tips to help support your digestive system:

  • Eating the right foods, like fiber-rich foods
  • Getting adequate sleep
  • Being physically active
  • Managing stress or mental health issues, such as anxiety or depression

Some medicines can help alleviate digestive issues. For example, with gastroparesis, a healthcare provider may prescribe medicines that aid stomach muscle functioning or reduce pain.

If you're worried something's off, a healthcare provider can refer you to a gastroenterologist, a physician specializing in the digestive tract. A gastroenterologist would be able to complete a workup to help determine the cause of your digestive symptoms.

A Quick Review

Your body takes about two to five days to digest food. But that time varies based on many factors, such as diet and health conditions. Eating fiber-rich foods, being active, getting adequate sleep, and managing stress can help support healthy digestion.

If you have health conditions that cause the digestive process to slow down or speed up, lifestyle changes or medicines may help get you back on track.

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Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Sensoy I. A review on the food digestion in the digestive tract and the used in vitro modelsCurr Res Food Sci. 2021;4:308-319. doi:10.1016/j.crfs.2021.04.004

  2. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Your digestive system and how it works.

  3. National Library of Medicine. Esophagus disorders.

  4. National Library of Medicine. Bowel transit time.

  5. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Gastroparesis.

  6. Hui C, Dhakal A, Bauza GJ. Dumping Syndrome. In: StatPearls. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; June 27, 2022.

  7. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Symptoms & causes of dumping syndrome.

  8. NIH News in Health. Keeping your gut in check.

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