Illustration by Peter Oumanski for TIME
By Markham Heid
December 10, 2014

Some say you are what you eat. But really, you are what you poop. “Not only does stool tell you about the health of your diet, but it shows you how your body’s digestive system is handling the foods you eat,” says Dr. Anish Sheth, a Princeton-based gastroenterologist and author of What’s Your Poo Telling You?

From hemorrhoids to cancer, diseases grave and small often show up first in your feces, Sheth says. And in recent years, health experts have learned your excrement also contains a wealth of information about your microbiome, the world of microscopic organisms that live and support your body’s many internal systems.

Put simply, your poop is a window to your health—even if you don’t consider the view all that appealing.

The first thing to consider when assessing your stool (a practice Dr. Sheth heartily advocates) is consistency, both in terms of physical attributes and regularity. “The ideal stool,” Dr. Sheth says, “has been described as a single soft piece.” You’re looking for something log-ish but not too firm, he continues. Imagine dispensing soft serve ice cream into your toilet, and you’ll have the general, somewhat less delicious idea.

This type of stool indicates you’re getting plenty of water and fiber in your diet. An absence of either can produce firmer, broken-up, difficult-to-expel feces or constipation, Sheth says. How hard you have to push is also important, he adds. Ideally, you should “evacuate” your waste with almost zero effort and feel as though you’ve fully emptied yourself.

Of course, everyone has the occasional bout of diarrhea or too-firm poo. But Sheth says neither should worry you much if it happens just once or twice before you’re back to normal. If a week passes without you passing healthy-looking stool, you should speak with a doctor. Even if you’re taking a number-two every day, hard or broken-apart poop is a sign that your diet is probably too low in fiber or water, which can lead to all sorts of gastrointestinal (GI) tract issues, Sheth says.

The color of your feces is also important. If it appears black or tarry, that may be evidence of blood. “The darker the stool, the higher up in your GI tract the blood is likely coming from,” Sheth says. He explains that blood emanating from ulcers or stomach problems will darken as it passes through your digestive system.

If you see maroon or dark red hues or streaks in your poop, that could mean inflammation, colitis, or certain intestinal cancers, Sheth explains. Bright red blood often indicates hemorrhoids or problems localized very near your anus.

Even the buoyancy of your bowel movements can reveal concerns. If your poop usually floats, that may signal an issue with your body’s ability to absorb fat, which in turn might mean your pancreas is having problems, Sheth says. Some particularly bad odors could also be red flags for health issues, although you probably wouldn’t know them if you smelled them. “Some doctors can identify certain GI diseases just by the distinct smell, although people who don’t diagnose them all the time wouldn’t be able to,” Sheth explains.

To keep your poop and your health in top form, Sheth recommends a diet than includes, again, plenty of fiber. “The average American gets about nine grams of fiber a day, when you need 25,” he says. He recommends lots of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes and seeds like flax or chia. “Throw those in a daily smoothie,” he suggests. “And look before you flush!”

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