With so many conflicting nutrition strategies and “breakthrough research” articles clamoring for your attention, just how are you supposed to know what’s right for you?.
Simple — you listen to your body. And the easiest way to do that? Look at your poo.
I’m serious. It’s easy and reliable way to check your body’s performance, with a quicker return on investment than other long term changes, like reducing your blood pressure or losing weight.
A poo by any other name is still a poo
Feces, bowel movements, business, caca, number twos, colonic cannonballs… everybody poos.
How you poo, though, is an excellent indicator of your diet, and also of your general gut health.
What’s in a poo?
Do you even know what healthy poo looks like? The Germans do (obviously).
Their toilets are built with an ingenious shelf on which to inspect your poo before you flush.
“Proper” Americans, on the other hand, actively avoid discussing this necessary part of our existence. But come on, you know you love to poo. We all do!
Frequency (ideally 1-3 times daily), texture, density and color are all important when assessing your fecal product.
Oh, poo, poo, wherefore art thou poo?
Chronic constipation is more common than you think.
I’m not talking about the short term, too-much-cheese-and-not-enough-broccoli kind of constipation, but long term difficulties.
Characterized by hard, infrequent poo that’s difficult to pass, constipation can cause hemorrhoids, bloating, pain, gas and a constant need to go. (In other words, straight-up misery.)
Laxatives may seem like a good idea, but they’re just a short term solution to clear the blockage. A better idea is magnesium — it relaxes your colon, and pulls water from your body to soften your feces. It’s found in stool softener tablets and many supplements.
Other solutions include healthy fats to keep things lubricated, and regular exercise to encourage gut activity.
Restroom, restroom, my kingdom for a restroom!
Diarrhea is hard to control (and harder to treat) because it’s usually a symptom of an infection or underlying imbalance.
As well as bloating and pain, it’s characterized by soft, watery poo and a very brief warning window to find a toilet.
An old-school remedy is the BRAT diet — bananas, rice, apples or apple sauce, and tea. The fiber and tannins help to firm up watery poo.
So what should my poo look like?
As you can see, poo comes in many shapes and sizes. Ideally, your poos look like number four — a soft-but-not-too-soft, cohesive stool is best.
It’s also better to be a three than a five or a six, because diarrhea is harder to fix.
Dark poo can indicate gastrointestinal bleeding (though if you eat a lot of beets, greens, or blueberries that’ll do it too), and light poo is a sign of decreased liver function, insufficient bacteria, or Gilbert’s Syndrome — a common genetic trait not requiring treatment.
A medium brown color shows that your liver, kidneys and large intestine are working well, your body has absorbed all available nutrients, is sufficiently hydrated and has good gut flora.
Keeping your gut working at peak performance resonates through your whole body, so it’s imperative to manipulate your diet to keep it healthy.
How do we change our poo? With a generous dose of fiber and healthy bacteria.
To eat bran, or not to eat bran, that is the question.
Fiber is the king of constitution, and essential for your intestinal health. Call it the great equalizer — it makes runny poo solid, and hard poo soft. Magic, right?
How much fiber are you getting every day? Here’s a simple calculator from the National Fiber Council.
Most Americans eat less than half the recommended 30g/day. If you’re struggling to eat enough fiber to keep your colon in line, you can supplement your diet with ‘bulk-forming laxatives’ like psyllium husk (sold as Metamucil) or food-grade bentonite clay (available at health food stores).
These absorb water and swell in your intestine, solidifying watery poo and softening solid poo — they also encourage your intestine’s muscles to contract and relax regularly (otherwise known as peristalsis).
Pears, nuts and seeds, and grandma’s classic remedy, prunes, are all great, and by increasing your fiber intake you can fight obesity, colon cancer and intestinal disease. You’ll also start to enjoy regular, comfortable poos!
Fiber, here we come, right? Not so fast, padawan.
Suddenly upping your fiber intake can actually make your symptoms worse. Increased bloating and gas aren’t going to help — even if you do improve the consistency of your number two’s.
By increasing your intake slowly, about 30% per week, as well as increasing your water consumption, you can avoid the gas and learn to love your colon.
I am one who ate not wisely but too well.
Now that you know about the “right” stuff to add, you also need to consider eliminating what’s not working. (See what I did there? Yeah you do.)
There are many foods which can affect your bowels. Dairy is a chief offender, and while the jury is still out on gluten (unless you have Celiac disease), it’s always good to try an elimination test to discover what affects you.
Choose a food, or several foods, to eliminate for 30 days (dairy, gluten, corn and soy are the top offenders FYI) and then add them back into your diet one at time, closely monitoring how your body responds.
Digestion, thy name is bacteria.
Your allies in the digestive process are your gut flora, or good bacteria. They help break down certain compounds, aid absorption of nutrients, protect you from toxins and make vitamins.
They’re part of an intricate ecosystem which affects your immune system, weight, energy, nutrition and risk of developing cancer.
Did you know bacteria make up about half the weight of your poo?
Improving your gut bacteria is simple — eat foods with live cultures, and avoid irritants. Your gut takes a big hit when you drink alcohol, take antibiotics, or eat heavily processed foods, and too much red meat.
Fermented foods like yogurt, kefir and kimchi, as well as pre- and pro-biotic supplements are all great for adding functioning bacteria back into your system!
This above all — to thine own poo be true.
A brief guide to impoove (whoops, improve) your poo:
- Increase your fiber intake gradually, supplement with bulk-forming laxatives if necessary.
- Take magnesium for constipation.
- Exercise. The hormones released from other muscles encourage your intestines as well.
- Eat more fermented foods. Bacteria make your intestines happy!
- If none of this works, see a medical professional.
In your lifetime, you’ll produce around five tons of poo. Let’s try make that as enjoyable as possible, okay?
If I were a gambler, I’d bet five tons of gold that you’ll be staring into the toilet bowl sometime in the next 24 hours.
Please try not to think of me while you do.