We're all friends here, so let's not be shy when it comes to one of the most basic of human functions: pooping. Go ahead, get your laughs out now. But trust us, when your bowels aren't behaving, it's reeaaally not funny.
Sometimes it's not so obvious what's causing the intestinal commotion. It turns out that poop is more than just the punchline; it's actually an indicator of how well the body's systems are working to absorb nutrients, eliminate waste, and keep everything, er, moving. That might make you wonder: What's abnormal? What looks/smells/feels off base? Get ready, because we're going to take a closer look at the contents of the toilet bowl (and poop health in general).
If you're being a poop detective, the best place to start is with the physical evidence: Exhibit A—your dookie. Number two can express itself in a range of ways. A helpful tool some gastroenterologists use to categorize poops is the Bristol Stool Chart. It illustrates what you might find before you flush.
How to Tell If You Have Healthy Poop
This chart is unappetizing at best, so we've used some candy stand-ins to dial down the ick factor.
As you can see from above, types 1 and 2 are the results of constipation. Types 3 and 5 are within the realm of normal. Types 6 and 7 have crossed into diarrhea. The sweet spot is in the middle: type 4. Soft, S-shaped, and easy to pass, it's the holy grail of bowel movements.
How to Have Healthier Poops
So how can we make all our number twos a number four? Let's rewind to the beginning of the process. Seems pretty simple: Eat food, your body extracts the nutrients it needs, and the rest gets flushed away. Well, in this system there are a couple factors at play.
The first is fiber, poop's BFF. It's categorized as either soluble (meaning it can dissolve in water) or insoluble (stays intact in water). But both promote healthy digestion. Picture your poop as a couch cushion. Not getting enough fiber is like pressing down on those cushions and squeezing all the air out, making them hard and uncomfortable to the point that you can feel every spring in the seat. Fiber is the helpful butler fluffing up the cushions to make them soft and cushy so you're sitting pretty.
The Institute of Medicine recommends 25 grams per day for women and 38 for men, which is well above the average of 15 grams most Americans are getting. (Average meaning half of these people are below that number. That's definitely Milk Duds territory!) Some wellness experts even advise bumping up your fiber to 40 grams. Look to fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains to level up your fiber.
The other big variable is water. Healthy poop is about 75 percent water. If the body senses you're dehydrated, it'll suck every drop of moisure out of your food, which means dry, hard dookie. Even if you're getting plenty of fiber, without adequate H2O, you're sure to get no-fun, hard, painful poops. Association of low dietary intake of fiber and liquids with constipation: evidence from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Markland AD, Palsson O, Goode PS. The American journal of gastroenterology, 2013, Apr.;108(5):1572-0241. And keep in mind that if you're sweating a bunch due to heat or exertion, you'll need even more water to recover to normal hydration levels. (Try this hydration calculator to figure out how much you should be guzzling.)
If either of these elements is shortchanged (too little water, not enough fiber) constipation can happen. Constipation is also a common side effect of high-protein diets, so don't confuse "Paleo" with "meat-tastic" and forget to load up on veggies and H2O!
On the other end of the spectrum is everyone's favorite punchline, diarrhea (cha-cha-cha). Usually it's the result of your body hitting the "eject" button on whatever doesn't agree with your system. (Fried, fatty foods are a usual suspect. Dairy, fructose, and artificial sweeteners are typical triggers too.) Another culprit: Viruses or other illnesses. These can also trigger diarrhea, making that winter flu all the more excruciating and your TP stash all the more sparse. Finally, certain medications will make things veer into the viscous too.
If you find yourself ping-ponging between the two extremes, that could be a sign of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Be sure to visit the doctor if your symptoms don't seem to clear up with diet modifications.
OK, you've tackled the usual suspects of water and fiber, but there are a few other factors that can help boost your bowels.
1. Probiotics. These helpful microorganisms contribute to the "good" bacteria in your body. Yes, probiotics are the buzzword du jour, but fermented foods have been consumed for centuries and surely contributed to some historically healthy poops. Like worker bees, the busy bacteria in your digestive system help break down your food and give you a boost when it comes to pooping. (Bonus, they do a world of good for the rest of your body too.) Keep in mind, not all probiotics are created equal. And if you think probiotics just means pills and yogurt, it's time you meet the three K's: kefir, kombucha, and kimchi. But plenty of other foods are also probiotic, like sauerkraut, tempeh, and miso soup, to name a few.
2. Exercise. Another way to deal with poop-related woes? Busting a sweat. Regular exercise won't just give you a shapely booty, it'll also help that booty run smoothly on the inside. New onset of constipation during long-term physical inactivity: a proof-of-concept study on the immobility-induced bowel changes. Iovino P, Chiarioni G, Bilancio G. PloS one, 2013, Aug.;8(8):1932-6203. Exercise keeps your blood flowing and contracts your internal muscles. Result: Poop moves along at a clipped pace through your body and doesn't get a chance to dry out or stop up your system.
3. Cop a squat. Some experts debate that modern toilets put unnecessary strain on your body's bowels. Squatting is arguably a more natural stance for number two. Not that you need to forgo your toilet all together, leave modern society, move to the woods, and/or grow a mountain-man beard. Simply propping your feet up on a stool or a stack of books will improve the angle of your toilet time. Consider this your invitation to kick up your heels in the bathroom.
Originally published August 2014. Updated April 2016.