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Pooping doesn't require much thought: you take a seat, do your business, flush and walk away. You're likely not examining what it looks like or making an Instagram post. However, there's actually a lot that your poop can tell you about your health! So, the next time you go, you might want to take a peek and see what the color and texture looks like—it'll help you figure out if you need to make any dietary changes or see a doctor.
Here's what the appearance of your bowel movements can share about your health and how best to implement changes to improve digestion and absorption of essential nutrients.
Smaller and harder brown lumps: Increase water and fiber
This probably means you're constipated, so you'll need to hydrate and loosen up stools, says Sam Presicci MCN, RD, LD, CPT, lead registered dietitian at Snap Kitchen. It could also come from stress, frequent travel or a lack of fiber or magnesium, she adds. (Luckily, high-magnesium foods like leafy greens, coconut water, berries and grapefruit are also hydrating.)
"With constipation, stools become hard and dry as a result of lack of water in the diet to make the consistency softer. They may form stool balls or pellets. If this is the case, fiber and water are essential to help soften stools," adds Dr. Robert Glatter, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at Northwell Health and attending emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital.
Drinking plenty of water may help soften stools, but fiber may or may not help ease constipation. Presicci says, "In general, fiber helps move things along in a couple ways. Insoluble fiber bulks up your stool and acts almost like a brush in your bowels, getting waste out and keeping things moving. Soluble fiber absorbs water, forming a gel that helps your stool pass more smoothly." Most people don't eat enough fiber, with a guideline of 25 grams per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. However, for some, adding more fiber can make things worse, since it won't help their stool consistency, pain or bloating.
"You can decide whether more fiber is helpful for you by experimenting with adding more into your diet and determing the cause," she says. Some common causes include lifestyle factors (like low fiber intake or inactivity), medications or disease states (like diabetes or IBD). "Knowing the cause of your constipation can help you decide whether you need to add to or reduce your fiber intake," she says. Foods rich in fiber include starchy and non-starchy vegetables, as well as grains, like quinoa or amaranth.
Diarrhea that's brown or slightly green: Try an elimination diet
You're likely inflamed, says Presicci. "If it's acute, you probably have a stomach bug, but if it's a regular occurrence, you're dealing with chronic inflammation, malabsorption or gut issues like leaky gut or IBS," she says. To help ID potential food sensitivities and heal your gut, it may be worth trying an elimination diet.
Focus on eating plenty of veggies (both starchy and non-starchy), as well as high-quality proteins and healthy fats while following your gut-healing protocol, as these are nutritious foods that can help lower inflammation in the body. If you have acute diarrhea from a stomach bug, focus on hydrating (using electrolytes if needed) and eating what you can stomach. It may also be worth paying a visit to your doctor if symptoms continue.
Smooth, well-formed & brown: Perfect!
This is what you want! "This likely means you're eating enough fiber and have good gut health, so keep doing what you're doing," says Presicci.
Oily, brown stool: Slowly increase fats
You may find oil in the water or slick-looking stool. This means you're not absorbing fat properly. Presicci says, "To help your body absorb fats better, first make sure you haven't added healthy fats too fast. If you've recently changed your diet in any drastic way, you may want to do a more gradual increase of fat instead."
Start with one serving of healthy fats—like avocado, olive oil or nuts—at each meal and work your way up to satiety, she says.
Mushy, brown that separates when you flush: Try an elimination diet
This type of stool also indicates inflammation, either from a food that you're sensitive to or due to something like leaky gut or another digestive issue, so it may be worth trying out an elimination diet. "Work on eating plenty of veggies (both starchy and non-starchy) as well as high-quality proteins and healthy fats during your gut-healing protocol," she says. In general, it can take 1-2 months (or more) to completely heal your gut and experience a reduction of symptoms and to see healthier stools, so be patient.
Green: Eat more probiotics
Stools can be green for a number of reasons. Presicci says, "Some people may eat plenty of leafy green veggies and the chlorophyll in the plants result in green-hued stools," which isn't serious. "Other reasons for green stools include bile pigment in the stool, a course of antibiotics or parasites and bacteria." If you think the issue stems from parasites or bacteria, it's definitely worth seeing your doctor for testing and treatment.
What's more, stools that are clay-like in texture or light in color could signify liver disease due to lack of bile, too, says Glatter. "Bile is a digestive fluid produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Stool acquires its brown color from bile, which gets excreted into the small intestine during the digestive process," he says. So, without enough, it gets lighter in color and could be clay-like or more light green.
To help ease the digestion process, try eating more probiotic-rich foods like kombucha, sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir to repopulate the good bugs in the gut, says Presicci.
Red, reddish or black stools: See a doctor
"Stools that are black signify bleeding in the upper portion of the GI tract, typically the stomach or first part of the small bowel known as the duodenum. It's essential that you see your doctor to schedule an endoscopy to evaluate the cause of the bleeding," says Glatter.
Bright red-colored poop might be due to either food or bleeding, while reddish and black/brown stools are almost certainly a sign of bleeding. If your stools are bright red, think about the foods you've eaten throughout the past day or two to determine whether the color might be food related, such as red foods and dyes. For instance, "beets may turn the stool reddish, but should clear in a few days. If your stools do not return to normal in a few days, it's a good idea to speak with your doctor," says Glatter.