“Meat Stays in Your Stomach for Months” – True or False?

Meat in the stomachAn interesting question (and an odd saying!). All the material we don’t digest passes through the intestinal tract and out of our bodies – it normally takes about a day or two.

If we have diarrhoea then food passes through much faster and if we’re constipated it can take much longer (sometimes weeks!). The stomach itself usually empties within a few hours, so it’s certainly not true that meat can stay inside you for months on end.

Origin of this meaty saying

A bit of social history gives us a clue to the history of the misconception. For a large part of our history, meat was only regularly eaten by the higher social classes. For the all the other mere mortals, it was an occasional treat (hence the Sunday roast).

It was only when social mobility became more possible that things started to change. In true Dickensian style, you could start life poor and rise to become rich, possibly even marrying into nobility. As a result of the growth of the middle classes and improvements in farming techniques, diets changed dramatically over a fairly short number of years. The dietary conditions that went with the new lifestyle were also different – suddenly you weren’t worrying about malnutrition and starvation – you were worrying about obesity, constipation, and gout. (Gout has long been associated with diet even though current evidence suggests that it’s actually more to do with a sedentary lifestyle than rich food.)

This list of troublesome new health worries tied to a diet suddenly rich in meat, cakes, wine and port is long. It’s no surprise then that people blamed meat for their newfound constipation. This settled into the belief that meat can stay in your stomach for months, and so the saying lives on to this day.

By Lewis Pike

(With thanks to Helen Morrison, historian, for origins of the saying.)

Question from Zoe via email

Photo Credt: Nic Taylor on Flickr

Article by Lewis Pike

May 14, 2014

Lewis studied BioMedical Sciences at Liverpool John Moores University and got a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology at University of York. He now spends more time helping people understand science writing than he should and wishing his colleagues would write more clearly for the public as well as each other.

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