There are certain health topics that we’re reluctant to talk about, yet they’re too important to ignore. One of the first questions a dietitian asks a new client is, “How are your bowel habits?”
Why? Because bowel habits are a window into our digestive health. The more science discovers about the complex interplay between the foods we eat and the microorganisms that inhabit our gut, the more we understand that digestive health is a primary component of overall health.
So, what is your poop telling you? Let’s start with the basics. Bowel habits vary from person to person, but there is a range of what’s considered healthy. For general bowel habits remember the rule of 3-3-3. You should go no more than 3 times a day, no less than once every 3 days, and spend no more than 3 minutes on the toilet. A healthy bowel movement also means you only need to wipe once or twice.
Once you’ve gone, go ahead and take a look before you flush. The shape of your stool can tell you volumes, as noted in the Bristol Stool Form Scale created by gastroenterologists Dr. Stephen Lewis and Dr. Ken Heaton and first published in 1997.
Types 1 and 2 are an indication that you’re dehydrated and constipated. Constipation is one of the most common gastrointestinal problems. You may need more fiber and fluids.
Types 3 and 4 are considered healthy and normal. Your digestive tract is happy.
Types 5, 6 and 7 are signs of diarrhea. This may be due to low soluble fiber intake, an imbalance of friendly bacteria or a gastrointestinal disorder. When diarrhea is accompanied by a fever or persists more than two days, it’s time to check with your doctor.
Be aware of changes in your bowel habits. A new onset of constipation may be your body telling you to drink more water and eat more fiber or it may be a symptom of a GI condition, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Also, it’s likely that you’ll have bouts of diarrhea from time to time.
Diarrhea is the body’s natural defense response to a foodborne illness or it could be the result of a food intolerance. However, if you normally have solid bowel movements and now frequently have diarrhea, as well as abdominal pain, bleeding and weight loss, diarrhea could be a symptom of a GI condition, such as Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.
How do you improve the shape of your stool and your overall gut health?
- Increase the amount of fiber you eat. Aim for 25 to 35 grams a day.
- Load up on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, peas and other fiber-packed foods.
- Make sure you get a good mix of soluble and insoluble fiber.
- Include cultured and fermented foods in your diet like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi or add a probiotic supplement to help repopulate healthy gut microbes.
- Drink adequate fluids. For most people that’s 60 to 80 ounces daily, but individual amounts vary based on body size and amount of sweat.
- Move. Physical activity is another key to good gut health. Strive for 30 to 60 minutes or more of moderate physical activity a day.
Pay attention to what your body is telling you and learn the language of your poop. For more ways to improve your digestive health and address your specific issues, talk to your nutritionist and don’t be shy when she asks, “How are your bowel habits?”
Reference: Digestive Diseases. National Institute for Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases website. https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases. Accessed July 22, 2018.