Even though fat has gotten a bad rap over the years, fat is actually essential to your health. Fat supports several of your body’s functions and gives your body the energy that it needs. Fat also helps your body absorb important vitamins and gives your body essential fatty acids that control inflammation, improve brain health, and more.
The amount of time that fat takes to digest varies from person to person and between men and women. In the 1980s, Mayo Clinic researchers found that the average transit time from eating to elimination of stool was approximately 40 hours. Total transit time averaged at 33 hours in men and 47 hours in women.
Once fat is broken down during digestion, some of it gets used right away for energy and the rest is stored. When your body needs extra energy, such as when you exercise or don’t eat enough, it will break down the stored fat for energy.
Fat takes longer to digest than other foods and the amount of time varies based on the type of fat. Dietary fats consist of:
Trans and saturated fats digest the fastest. But these types of fats are considered unhealthy fats and raise LDL cholesterol.
The process of fat digestion involves a series of steps that begin the moment food enters your mouth. Here’s a look at the process from beginning to end:
The digestion process begins when you start chewing your food. Your teeth break the food into smaller pieces and your saliva moistens the food so that it’s easier for it to move through your esophagus and into your stomach. Your saliva also contains enzymes that begin breaking down the fat in your food.
When you swallow, a series of muscle contractions called peristalsis moves the food through your esophagus and into your stomach.
Your stomach lining produces acids and enzymes that break your food down further so that the foods can pass to the small intestine.
4. Small intestine
The majority of fat digestion happens once it reaches the small intestine. This is also where the majority of nutrients are absorbed.
Your pancreas produces enzymes that break down fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Your liver produces bile that helps you digest fats and certain vitamins. This bile is stored by the pancreas. These digestive juices are delivered to your small intestine through ducts where it all works together to complete the fat breakdown.
During this process, fat and cholesterol are packaged into tiny particles called chylomicrons.
After the fat has been digested, fatty acids are passed through the lymph system and then throughout the body via your bloodstream to be used or stored for energy, cell repair, and growth. Your lymph system also absorbs fatty acids to help fight infection.
Adipose, which is fat tissue, takes triglyceride from the chylomicrons. Each chylomicron gets smaller, eventually leaving a remnant that’s rich in cholesterol and taken in by the liver.
Supplements containing digestive enzymes have become more and more popular, although more research needs to be done on how effective they are. However, it has been shown that they may provide promising results for more than just enzyme deficiencies.
These supplements may contain many different enzymes that help break down specific foods. For example, lipase aids in fat digestion, while amylase helps break down carbohydrates, bromelain, and papain. Bromelain and papain are both enzymes that help break down proteins. They can be found in pineapple and papaya.
As mentioned, more research is still needed to further investigate supplements for fat digestion. Always talk to your doctor before taking a supplement meant to improve fat digestion.
Certain pancreatic enzymes come as prescription drugs that help you digest food. These are different from the enzymes sold by health stores. Pancreatic enzymes, such as pancrelipase (Creon, Pancreaze, Zenpep), are prescribed when a medical condition interferes with your pancreas’ ability to produce the enzymes needed for digestion.
Some conditions that do this include:
Pancreatic enzymes should only be taken as prescribed by a doctor.
Along with adding papaya and pineapple to your diet, you may also want to consider spicing up your meals using any of the following:
A 2011 animal study found that these common spices stimulated the secretion of bile with higher amounts of bile acids in rats on a high-fat diet. Bile plays an important role in the digestion and absorption of dietary fat.
More research is still needed to understand how these spices may help improve fat digestion in humans.
If you’re concerned about your dietary fat intake, you can cut back on the “bad” fats and add more healthy fats to your diet. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 suggests replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and avoiding trans fat altogether.
Foods containing omega-3 fatty acids are also recommended because they’re beneficial for heart health. Reading food labels is a great start. Keep in mind that many foods contain more than one type of fat.
Here are some examples of foods that contain healthy fats:
- vegetable oils , such as olive oil, sesame oil, and canola oil
- nuts, including almonds, pecans, and cashews
- peanut butter and almond butter
- fatty fish, such as salmon, sardines, herring, and trout
- seeds, such as sunflower, pumpkin, and sesame
Eating a healthy diet that’s low in unhealthy fats, while incorporating healthy fats, can help you maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of diseases. Remember that it’s important to speak to your doctor before making any drastic changes to your diet or starting a new supplement so that they can ensure you’ll be doing it the healthiest way.