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The down side to holiday eating

Glenn-EllisThe down side to holiday eating

Information is the best medicine

By Glenn Ellis, George Curry, Media Columnist

Holiday eating can wreak havoc on many of your normal routines. Since most of you reading this column will experience some issues related to excessive food consumption this time of the year, here is a re-visit to a topic that few dare to explore – bowel movements.

Your bowel movement can tell you a lot about your health. This may not be a topic you would typically talked about at the dinner table or a party, but actually more people are obsessed with it than you would imagine. We should be interested the appearance and/or condition of our bowel movement.

There is a reason for the large intestine to be the first organ developed in the fetus. It is the most important and influential organ of the body.

What indicates a good bowel movement is, first, that the stool floats. Floating stools are both a blessing and a curse. They can float because they are so full of bubbles and gas that they are abnormal. On the other hand, they float because they have too much fat in them, or they can float because they are high in fiber, which is the kind we want.

It is not the weight of your stools, but rather their densities that determines their out-of-body fate to float or to sink. Simply put, the “floaters” are bloated by the air in them. Sinkers need a lot more fiber in their diet.

Floaters may be caused by gas in the stool, resulting from a change in the diet. Perhaps you’ve suddenly started eating more high fiber foods, for example. Undigested fat will also make stools float. This could be an indication that your diet is too high in fat, or there could be a problem with nutrient absorption in your diet. Stools that result from poor food absorption often leave a greasy film on the water and are rather large.

If you’re suffering from constipation, you may produce impacted stools, which will “sink” because of their density and lack of moisture. You need to include more fiber, both soluble and insoluble, in your diet to bulk out the stools and get your digestive system working properly again. And drink more water. The bowel and colon need water to work efficiently, just like the rest of your body.

The truth is, a healthy stool is neither a sinker nor a floater – it’s a combination of the two. If you’re in good general health, you’ll pass some sinkers, some floaters and some that seem to just sit in the water, neither floating nor sinking. As long as your bowel motions are soft, fairly bulky and easy and painless to pass, and there’s no sign of blood or excessive mucus in the stools, everything is well down below.

The digestive process can vary depending on what is being eaten and the person’s metabolism.  For example, fat takes a lot longer to digest than sugars. Fiber in the diet speeds up transit time (the amount of time from chewing to bowel movement). Generally it can range from 24 to 48 hours for men and slightly longer for women. Chewing takes five to 30 seconds followed by swallowing for up to 10 seconds. The food enters the stomach where it is churned and broken apart by harsh acids, namely hydrochloric acid.  The food can remain in the stomach from one to four hours after which it empties in a semi liquid form called chyme into the small intestine. Here is where most of the real digestion takes place.

In other words most of the nutrients are absorbed from the small intestine into the blood stream.  The highly acidic nature of the chyme is neutralized by the pancreas with bi-carbonates and bile from the gallbladder and liver.  This process can take about three to six hours.  Finally, about 10 hours after you’ve eaten the mushy paste of undigested food enters the large intestine or colon.

Here it may take another 18 hours or even up to two days before its elimination as feces.  Water and certain vitamins are absorbed from the colon but most of the waste consists of indigestible bits of food, mostly fibers from fruit, vegetables and grains.

For a person in generally good health and eating a healthy diet, the intestinal transit time will be about 12 – 24 hours. The average American will have a transit time of 40 to 45 hours. So you see transit time for a meal can vary any-where from 22 hours up to two days.

Enjoy the season everyone, and may all your dishes be licked clean.

Remember, I’m not a doctor. I just sound like one.

DISCLAIMER: The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.)

Glenn Ellis, is a regular media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. Listen to him every Saturday at 9 a.m. (EST) on, and Sundays at 8:30 a.m. (EST) on For more good health information, visit:

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