All living organisms need nutrients to survive. While plants can obtain nutrients from their roots and the energy molecules required for cellular function through the process of photosynthesis, animals obtain their nutrients by the consumption of other organisms. The conversion of the food consumed to the nutrients required is a multistep process involving digestion and absorption. During digestion, food particles are broken down to smaller components which are later absorbed by the body. This happens by both physical means such as chewing and by chemical means.
One of the challenges in human nutrition is maintaining a balance between food intake, storage, and energy expenditure. Taking in more food energy than is used in activity leads to storage of the excess in the form of fat deposits. The rise in obesity and the resulting diseases like type 2 diabetes makes understanding the role of diet and nutrition in maintaining good health all the more important.
The Human Digestive System
The process of digestion begins in the mouth with the intake of food (Figure). The teeth play an important role in masticating (chewing) or physically breaking food into smaller particles. The enzymes present in saliva also begin to chemically break down food. The food is then swallowed and enters the esophagus—a long tube that connects the mouth to the stomach. Using peristalsis, or wave-like smooth-muscle contractions, the muscles of the esophagus push the food toward the stomach. The stomach contents are extremely acidic, with a pH between 1.5 and 2.5. This acidity kills microorganisms, breaks down food tissues, and activates digestive enzymes. Further breakdown of food takes place in the small intestine where bile produced by the liver, and enzymes produced by the small intestine and the pancreas, continue the process of digestion. The smaller molecules are absorbed into the blood stream through the epithelial cells lining the walls of the small intestine. The waste material travels on to the large intestine where water is absorbed and the drier waste material is compacted into feces; it is stored until it is excreted through the anus.