Your digestive system is vital for helping to fuel your body with the nutrients it extracts from the foods you eat.
During digestion, food that you’ve eaten moves through your gastrointestinal (GI) tract, where it’s gradually broken down, allowing nutrients to be absorbed.
Each part of your GI tract is specialized for a different aspect of digestion. For example, your stomach uses both mechanical and chemical methods to break down your food. It then empties its contents into your small intestine, where nutrient absorption takes place.
Although it can vary, there are estimates regarding the average time it takes for food to move through your stomach and other parts of your GI tract.
Let’s get into the details of how this works and how long it takes.
Generally speaking, it takes about 2 to 4 hours for food to move from your stomach to your small intestine.
The exact amount of time can depend on several factors, such as the composition and size of your meal, your hormones, and your sex. Women tend to digest food more slowly than men.
The following happens when food enters your stomach:
- Relaxation. The upper portion of your stomach relaxes in order to accommodate the food you’ve eaten. This is why your abdomen can look slightly distended after a meal.
- Digestion. Your stomach uses rhythmic churning and grinding motions (mechanical digestion) as well as stomach acid and enzymes (chemical digestion) to break down your meal.
- Emptying. The pyloric sphincter allows small amounts of food to gradually leave your stomach and move into your small intestine.
After leaving your stomach, food then moves through your intestines:
- Small intestine. In your small intestine, food mixes with additional digestive fluids. This is where most of the nutrient absorption takes place. Food can spend between 2 to 6 hours in your small intestine.
- Large intestine. In your large intestine (colon), water is absorbed, and what’s left over from digestion is turned into stool. The waste products from your food spend around 36 hours in your large intestine.
In total, it can take between 2 to 5 days for food to move through your entire GI tract.
Food composition can play a big role in how long it takes for your food to leave your stomach.
Let’s examine some important food-related factors that can influence how long it takes for your stomach to empty.
Liquids typically leave your stomach quickly. For example, after you drink a glass of water, it’s estimated that only
Solid foods often need to be broken down and liquified further, which means they usually take longer to leave your stomach. In fact, it usually takes about 20 to 30 minutes before solid foods begin to leave your stomach.
Regardless of consistency, foods and drinks that have a lower calorie content generally leave your stomach at a faster rate. Higher calorie foods and drinks will take longer.
For example, while water leaves your stomach at a fast rate, a higher calorie liquid such as a glass of fruit juice or a milkshake will exit more slowly.
However, foods high in fat and fiber spend a longer amount of time in your stomach. That’s why you may feel full for longer when you eat foods that are high in fat or fiber.
The size of your meal can affect the rate at which food leaves your stomach. This seems to be true for both liquids and solids.
It’s important to note that solid meals will often have a lag period before stomach emptying begins. However, larger meals empty at a faster rate than smaller meals once this lag period has passed.
Generally speaking, if it’s been several hours since you’ve had anything to eat, your stomach is likely empty.
However, keep in mind that the rate of stomach-emptying can vary based on what you’ve consumed and other factors. Because of this, time may not always be a very accurate indicator of an empty stomach.
When your stomach is empty, you may experience physical symptoms of hunger. Some examples of these include:
Some medications need to be taken on an empty stomach. There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, oral medications are absorbed into your bloodstream through the lining of your GI tract. Because of this, having food in your stomach can potentially slow a drug’s absorption, making it less effective.
Second, there are some foods that can interfere with the activity of specific types of drugs. This can potentially increase or decrease the level of a drug in your system. This type of interaction is called a food-drug interaction.
Some examples of food-drug interactions include:
- Grapefruit. Grapefruit can increase the levels of certain drugs in your blood. Examples include some statins and blood pressure drugs.
- Vitamin K. Foods high in vitamin K, such as spinach, kale, and Brussels sprouts, can decrease the effectiveness of the blood thinner warfarin.
- High fat meals. Consuming a high fat meal can lower levels of esomeprazole, a proton pump inhibitor, in your bloodstream.
If food consumption has the potential to affect a drug, your prescription will say to take it on an empty stomach.
A good guideline to follow for these types of medications is to take them either 1 hour before eating or 2 hours after eating.
Sometimes you may be prescribed a medication that tells you to take it with food. There are a few reasons for this:
- It reduces side effects. Some drugs, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and corticosteroids, can cause stomach upset when taken on an empty stomach. Having food in your stomach can help lower the likelihood of these side effects.
- It helps with a condition. Some health conditions, like diabetes or heartburn, are affected by food intake. That’s why it’s important to take medication for these kinds of conditions with food.
- It aids in absorption. Sometimes having food in your GI tract can help with drug absorption. This is true for some types of HIV drugs.
If you have a medication that you need to take with food, try to coordinate taking your medication with your mealtime.
Always follow the instructions on the prescription packaging, and contact your doctor or pharmacist with any questions.
Some types of tests or procedures may require you to fast beforehand. When you fast, you’re refraining from eating for a specified amount of time. For example, you may have to fast before:
- some types of blood tests, such as those for blood glucose and triglycerides
- procedures involving the GI tract or abdominal region, such as an endoscopy or abdominal ultrasound
- testing for food allergies or intolerances
- surgery that’s performed using general anesthesia
If you’re fasting, you may not be able to eat anything for 6 to 8 hours before the test or procedure.
For example, if you’re having a procedure in the morning, you’ll have your last full meal the evening before and not eat anything until after your procedure.
There may be additional guidelines related to what types of drinks you can have. This often involves only drinking a small amount of water during your fasting period.
The specific guidelines for food and water intake can depend on the test or procedure that’s being performed. Always carefully follow your doctor’s guidelines, and don’t hesitate to ask questions if something isn’t clear.
After you eat, food typically spends 2 to 4 hours in your stomach. However, this can vary based on the type of food you’ve eaten, how much, and other factors.
Liquids usually leave your stomach quickly, while solid foods typically take longer. Other food-related factors that can lead to a longer stomach retention time include:
- high fat foods
- high fiber foods
- high calorie foods
Whether your stomach is full or empty can impact things like taking medications or fasting before a test or procedure.
In these situations, it’s always important to carefully follow your doctor’s instructions regarding food and drink intake.