The 3 Most Important Things Your Poop Reveals About Your Health, According to GI Docs

Woman holding toilet paper

Pooping is an essential step in your digestive system: It’s how your body gets rid of waste. While it’s not something everyone likes to talk about, your poop—including its shape and size and how frequently you go—can reveal a lot about your health.

But, doctors emphasize that every’s bowel movements are different so it’s crucial to know what’s normal for you. This will help you recognize changes in your pooping and signal that a trip to your doctor is needed, explains Dr. Joshua Forman, MD, a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland.

“We all poop, and we all poop a little differently,” he says. “And we can poop differently from one day to the next.”

Some people’s bowel movements follow a consistent schedule, while others don’t. Dr. Forman says your stool can vary based on several factors, like what you eat and how much you exercise.

“The quality of your poop can say a lot about the state of your health,” he adds. So, it’s important to pay attention to your poop—and, not be embarrassed about talking to your doctor when something unusual happens with the appearance of your stool or the frequency of your bathroom breaks.

Here’s what you should know about your poop, according to gastroenterologists.

What Should a Normal Bowel Movement Be Like?

Normal, when it comes to pooping, varies from person to person. There’s no set number of bowel movements you should have in a day, as it can vary from about three times a day to three times a week, says Dr. Lance Uradomo, MD, an interventional gastroenterologist at the City of Hope Orange County Lennar Foundation Cancer Center in Irvine, California.

Related: Wait, Is It Normal to Poop 5 Times a Day?

“What is important is to notice if your typical frequency of bowel movements suddenly changes,” he says. “If this happens, consult with your doctor.”

The appearance of your stool can vary from person to person and day to day, Dr. Forman says. The color, shape and consistency can change, and he says sometimes you may notice partially digested food or pills you’ve taken in your stool.

Doctors sometimes use the Bristol Stool Chart, which identifies seven types of poop, to help patients describe their bowel movements. But, Dr. John Dumot, DO, a gastroenterologist at University Hospitals in Beachwood, Ohio, says the chart usually doesn’t help doctors or patients understand whether bowel habits are healthy.

“I’m more interested in patients’ descriptions of whether they feel like they had a complete or incomplete evacuation,” or whether they fully emptied their bowels, he explains. Doctors also want to know about the frequency and urgency of bowel movements, and if you ever have fecal incontinence, which is an inability to hold your stool until you get to the bathroom.

Generally, your stool should be easy to pass, shaped like a snake and a medium to dark brown color, Dr. Uradomo says.

3 Things Your Poop Reveals About Your Health

Noticing that your poop differs in color and texture from day to day is usually nothing to worry about, doctors say. Most likely, it’s due to what you’re eating and how much water you’re drinking.

Related: Is It Normal to Poop After Every Meal? GI Experts Spill the Beans

First, your poop can tell you if you're eating enough fiber. A diet high in fiber makes stool softer, while a low-fiber diet can cause hard, dry stools, Dr. Uradomo says. Fiber-rich foods include whole grains, fruits and vegetables.

In some cases, you might need to take a fiber supplement, such as the psyllium fiber found in Metamucil, Dr. Dumot says.

Second, your poop can tell you if you're eating a healthy, balanced diet. Sometimes what you eat can change the color of your stool, Dr. Uradomo explains. For example, a diet full of leafy green veggies could give your poop a green hue, while eating beets might make it look reddish, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Certain medications can have the same effect. For instance, taking iron supplements might make your poop look black.

Finally, your poop can tell you if you're drinking enough water. Drinking water—at least eight 8-ounce glasses a day—is crucial for gut health, Dr. Uradomo adds. Water helps break down the food you eat, making it easier to digest, and softens stool. Not drinking enough could lead to constipation.

Related: Is It Normal to Get Sharp Pains in Your Stomach? Here’s What GI Docs Say

Exercising regularly also helps keep your digestive system regular, Dr. Dumot adds.

Your poop, especially changes in your bowel habits, could also signal a medical issue, Dr. Forman says. For example, if you have diarrhea, or loose, watery stools, that lasts longer than several days, it could be a sign of an infection or a condition such as celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel disease.

Greasy, oily stool could be a sign of malabsorption or a problem with the pancreas, he says. Light or clay-colored stools could signal a liver or pancreas issue, and narrow, thin stools could suggest a narrowing or growth in the colon.

When to Worry About Your Pooping Habits

Any sudden changes in your bowel movements should be discussed with your doctor, especially diarrhea or constipation that persists. If you have blood in your stool or black stool, abdominal pain, weight loss or fever, talk to your doctor immediately, Dr. Forman says.

Everyone should start getting screened for colon cancer at age 45, Dr. Dumot emphasizes. There’s been an increase in younger people being diagnosed with colon cancer recently, and experts aren’t sure why.

Signs of colon cancer include changes in bowel habits, rectal bleeding, blood in stool, abdominal pain, fatigue, unintentional weight loss and feeling like you need to poop but not feeling relieved after having a bowel movement, according to the American Cancer Society. But, Dr. Dumot says sometimes these signs don’t appear until later in the cancer’s progression, and that’s why early screening is so important.

Just know that healthy bowel habits are what works for you, and what’s healthy varies, Dr. Forman says. But bowel movements should never interfere with your normal activities. Though it can be embarrassing to talk about your poop, it’s vital to do so when you notice changes.

“Trust that your provider knows about poop and is not afraid or embarrassed to talk about it with you—especially if it makes you healthier and happier,” he adds.

Next, read about what farting can tell you about your health.