The Time it Takes to Digest Food

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Posted: 24/07/2016 Print

The Time it Takes to Digest Food

Guest blog by Sam Hadadi.

Does How Quickly We Digest Food Affect Our Health?

With growing numbers of us suffering with IBS or constipation, the nation’s digestive problems (and how we can cure them) have become something of a hot topic.

From sipping on soothing mint teas, to ditching food groups, taking probiotics and packing in the fibre, we all have different ways to ease those troublesome digestive woes. Yet, with no absolute cure for problems such as IBS, we always want to learn more about our body and its digestive system. How can we help, and how can we soothe that tummy?

Flavoursome Peppers
Eating a variety of vegetables for better digestion

In the latest research to hit newsstands, a team of scientists have unearthed some exciting developments which may be of interest to any sufferers.

You see, they’ve managed to shed some light on how the amount of time it takes to digest food can affect our health. According to the study from the National Food Institute in Denmark, the time it takes for the food we eat to travel through the human gut (this is also known as transit time) affects the amount of harmful degradation products produced along the way.

What does this mean? Well, quite simply, if we want a healthy digestive system, transit time is a pretty important key. Incredibly, food has to travel through eight metres – yep, you read that right! - of intestine from the time it leaves our mouth to the time it leaves as waste. Yet, the less time our food spends travelling through these long, internal tunnels, the better!

The Study

Much of the more modern research into digestion focuses on how the bacterial make-up of our gut can affect the health of our tummy.

Yet, taking this one step further, Postdoc Henrik Munch Roager from the National Food Institute decided to see how food’s transit time through the colon affects the gut bacteria’s role in the health of the digestive system.

To do this, he worked alongside a team of researchers to measure the products of bacterial activity, which end up in urine.

What They Found

The bacteria found in our intestines are picky little things - they prefer to digest dietary carbs but when we’re running low on these, they turn to other nutrients such as proteins.

Many researchers before have noticed that there may be a link between some of the products produced as a result of bacterial protein degradation and a heap of diseases including colorectal cancer, chronic renal disease and autism.

To sum this up, researchers now say: “…the longer food takes to pass through the colon, the more harmful bacterial degradation products are produced.

“Conversely, when the transit time is shorter, we find a higher amount of the substances that are produced when the colon renews its inner surface, which may be a sign of a healthier intestinal wall.”

For a long time, health experts have told us that diversity in the microflora found in out gut means that we’ll be happier and healthier. However, this recent study (along with many others) flips that on its head and actually suggests that bacterial richness in our waste is actually associated with a long transit time.

In short, having all kinds of little bacteria living inside us doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll be healthier. As Tina Rask Licht, an author on this latest study, said: ”We believe that a rich bacterial composition in the gut is not necessarily synonymous with a healthy digestive system, if it is an indication that food takes a long time to travel through the colon.”

What Does This Mean for Me?

While there may not yet be any solutions – there’s no magic pill to speed up our digestive transit time - it suggests that common problems such as constipation could be extremely damaging for our health.

Exercising for good health
Exercising for good health

You see, since transit time plays a huge role in how our intestinal bacteria work together (and the longer it takes, the worse the news for us), constipation could have a huge impact on our health. Unfortunately, constipation is a huge issue in the UK, where around one in seven adults and one in three children suffers with constipation every now and then.

If this is the case, these findings may even be used to help researchers better understand diseases where constipation is considered a risk factor, such as colorectal cancer and Parkinson’s disease, as well as conditions where constipation often occurs such as ADHD and autism.

What Can I Do?

To keep your insides ticking along smoothly try to eat natural, nourishing foods.

Tine Rask Licht was eager to point out that people’s dietary habits can influence transit time: ”You can help food pass through the colon by eating a diet rich in fibre and drinking plenty of water.

“It may also be worth trying to limit the intake of for example meat, which slows down the transit time and provides the gut bacteria with lots of protein to digest. Physical activity can also reduce the time it takes for food to travel through the colon.”

What else can you do to improve your digestion? Here are some of our favourite tips:

  • Eat the rainbow

raspberries copy
Homegrown raspberries

Anyone looking to flush out their digestive system should aim to up their fibre intake. Some of our favourite high-fibre foods include fruit and veg, so load up your plates with all your favourite greens. You should also avoid refined foods, which can be difficult to digest and provide little nutritional value.

  • Drink Up

To keep your insides happy, it’s important to stay hydrated. Water helps your body to flush out toxins and waste, so try to drink at least two litres a day. If you can’t stand plain water, try infusing it with fruit slices or lemon, or sip on herbal teas. Peppermint, ginger and fenugreek teas have all been used for centuries to aid digestion.

  • Chew Your Food

Most of us eat far too quickly, without even stopping for breath. However, taking time to chew your food properly can ease the load on your digestive system, so your body can work hard elsewhere instead.

  • Eat Fermented Foods

Delicious fermented foods1 are high in happy bacteria which help you to care for your insides. Try to add sauerkraut, kimchi or komucha to your diet, or you could take a good probiotic supplement instead.

  • Work on Your Stress

Lucy relaxing
Making time to relax

Having soaring stress levels can really interrupt our digestive system, as well as many of our body’s other functions. To ease stress, try meditating, taking gentle exercise such as going for a walk, or simply taking time out for you.

  • Listen to Your Body

We’re all different and we all respond to foods in different ways. Try to learn what works for you and what doesn’t – and pile your plates high with foods your body loves! If it helps, consider jotting down a food diary.

For further reading on bacteria in your gut, read our blog Bacterial Bonanza

Sam Hadadi Signature

  1. Gut Health

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