- What affects the speed of stomach emptying
- Why this is important if you take medications or supplements
- How you can support digestion naturally
The simple answer is, it depends. But the time needed for your stomach to empty is important for digestion and getting the maximum nutrients from your food. It’s also useful to know if you are taking medications or supplements.
Research shows that different foods move at different rates through the digestive tract. To understand how long it takes your stomach to empty – and its impact on the effectiveness of medicine, nutritional supplements, and even your health – we need to start with a brief look at how the stomach and your gastrointestinal tract work.
How does the stomach work?
The stomach has three primary functions:
- Temporarily storing chewed food, called a bolus, for about two hours or longer.
- Producing stomach acid and digestive enzymes that mix with the bolus to break it down and form chyme, the semi-liquid mass of partially digested food, water, stomach acid, and digestive enzymes.
- Emptying the chyme into the small intestine for further digestion and nutrient absorption.
For the stomach to work efficiently, it needs the entire gastrointestinal tract to work efficiently. This means food must move through the small intestine at a normal pace. It also means waste that collects in the large intestine (often called the colon) must clear regularly. Conditions like constipation may appear to affect only the large intestine, but their effect can be much more far-reaching, affecting how long it takes food to move through the stomach.
Factors that affect how fast you have an empty stomach
Many factors can affect the time it takes for food to move out of your stomach. Some you control, and some you don’t. These include:
- Your current metabolism
- How active you are every day
- Your age
- Medicines or drugs you may be taking
- What you eat
- Your overall health
You have immediate control over what you eat and how much physical activity you get. Eating the right foods along with regular exercise gives you a little control over your metabolism, but that takes time.
For most healthy individuals, the stomach empties about 50% of its content in two to three hours. You have an empty stomach in four to five hours, given, of course, that no additional food is ingested in this time.
Exactly how long it takes can depend on the meal. Some foods are classified as fast-digesting and others as slow-digesting based on their rate of transit through the stomach and into the small intestine.
Carbohydrates with a high glycemic index are categorized as fast-digesting. Examples of fast-digesting foods include processed sugars, short-grain white rice, and ingredients you’d find in energy bars.
Fast-digesting foods are great for a rapid energy boost. Your body breaks them down quickly, boosting your glucose levels that your body can turn into energy.
Of course, there is a downside to this. You feel hungry more quickly. However, overeating any of these often leads to more glucose than what you actually burn for energy, leading your body to store the excess glucose as fat.
Examples of slow-digesting foods include most fresh fruits and vegetables, beans, and nuts. Proteins and fats also require more time.
Digesting slowly makes you feel fuller for longer. These foods also offer a steady release of energy. However, too many of them can make your entire system work harder. This is especially true of diets high in fat and red meats, which require more time to digest. You may even have difficulty producing enough enzymes to break them down.
List of Foods by Digestive Speed
Here is a list of common foods and how long it takes each one to transit through the stomach, from fastest to slowest.
- Water – empties almost immediately.
- Juice (fruit or vegetable) – 15 to 20 minutes
- Uncooked vegetables – 30 to 40 minutes
- Cooked vegetables – 40 minutes
- Fish – 45 to 60 minutes
- Starchy vegetables (e.g., potatoes) – 1.5 to 2 hours
- Chicken – 1.5 to 2 hours
- Dairy – 2 hours
- Whole grains – 2 hours
- Nuts – 3 hours
- Beef – 3 hours
- Pork – 5 hours
Now, these are just the average times for each to pass through the stomach. Further digestion and absorption still occur in the small intestine and then again in the large intestine.
Generally speaking, stomach transit or gastric emptying may take up to 5 hours (presuming you don’t consume any food within this period). Small intestine transit can take anywhere from 2 to 6 hours. Colonic transit can take from 10 to 59 hours.
Other factors that affect how long it takes a stomach to empty
The time you need to digest food also depends on these factors:
How much you consume directly affects how long it will take for your stomach to empty. The more you put in, the longer it will take to digest it. Interestingly, large meals take longer to start moving but empty faster than smaller meals.
You are already optimized to digest at body temperature, so meals that are warmer or colder than body temperature can slow the digestive process.
The more you chew your food, the smaller the particle size. Smaller food particles are digested more quickly as stomach acids and enzymes can break them down faster and with more ease.
Level of physical activity
Regular physical activity helps boost several digestive functions, from enzyme production to the movement of the gastrointestinal muscles.
The importance of proper stomach function
If your stomach empties too slowly, food begins to ferment, causing gas and bloating. This condition is called gastric stasis, or gastroparesis. The gas and bloating, however, are not the worst part. The fermentation can mean you don’t get all the nutrients from your food.
Rapid gastric emptying or dumping syndrome, on the other hand, occurs when food moves too quickly through the stomach. In this case, it enters the small intestine without being broken down properly. As a result, the small intestine is again unable to absorb nutrients.
Fortunately, this is a condition you have more control over. Eating too fast or not properly chewing often leads to this problem. Taking time to properly chew your meal can relieve most instances of this condition.
How does digestion in the stomach affect the lower digestive tract?
When your stomach breaks down food as it’s supposed to, the small intestine receives partially digested material it can handle. For you, this translates into a better absorption of nutrients. It also ensures the colon receives waste it can process effectively, reducing the chance of undigested food building up and affecting the balance of gut bacteria, immune response, and overall colon health.
Efficient digestion translates to:
- Proper nutrient absorption
- Stable blood-glucose levels
- Good energy levels
- Sharp cognitive function
- Healthy body weight
- Regular bowel movements
- Good quality sleep
How can I tell if I have an empty stomach?
As you can see, you need at least a couple of hours for your stomach to empty. Signs that you have an empty stomach include:
- A growling stomach
- Feeling weak
- Anger or irritability
- Dizziness or feeling lightheaded
Stomach emptying and taking medications or supplements
Some medicines give instructions to take with a meal. Others say to take it on an empty stomach. Supplements frequently have similar directions.
This is a good rule to follow for medicines or supplements that you are to take on an empty stomach – one hour before a meal or two after. The hour before gives you a chance to process the drug or nutrients before the food arrives. Two hours after should have the food mostly broken down, making it less likely to interfere with the medication.
Why would you need to take medicine with food?
It might be that the food will help reduce side effects. In some instances, your food helps with the absorption of the medicine. If you have any questions about a drug you are taking, you should always talk with your doctor.
How can you aid healthy stomach function?
Eating a well-balanced diet and exercising are two of the best ways to maintain good digestive health. Here are a few other ways you can encourage the proper break down of what you eat:
Avoid eating fast-digesting with slow-digesting food. This helps your stomach keep a regular “emptying” schedule.
Carefully space your meals. If you have slow-digesting food for lunch, for example, avoid snacking. Then, schedule your dinner four to five hours later to make sure your stomach is completely empty.
Chew well, and eat slowly. Your food should almost be a liquid (or mush) by the time you swallow it, making it easier for your stomach to do its job.
Supplement if needed. If you find you experience gas and bloating when you eat, it may be that you are not producing enough digestive enzymes. It can happen as you age. Taking a digestive supplement like Digest Infused can help.
Great health depends on proper digestion. And knowing when your stomach is empty helps ensure you get the maximum value from your medicines and supplements. You can also use this knowledge for weight-loss strategies and improve gastrointestinal detoxing and colon cleansing effectiveness.