Let’s face it, your most intimate poop questions probably stay safely between you and your Google searches. Surprisingly, poop can tell you a lot about your health. And while it’s normal to experience an atypical poop here and there, it may be worth taking that extra peek before you flush. We talked to Tamara Freuman, a New York-based registered dietician to get the scoop on poop.
The different poop color meanings
Food, medications, and certain health issues can all impact the color and shape of poop. Here’s what it could mean if you have…
If you’re seeing green, it may mean you recently ate a lot of leafy vegetables, took iron supplements, or ate foods that have certain food-coloring. In other cases, green poop may indicate food poisoning or even a bowel disorder.
Yellow poop, light brown poop, or orange poop
Eating orange or yellow foods (such as turmeric or sweet potatoes) can tint your stool yellow, light brown, or orange. But it can also happen after gallbladder surgery because of an infection in the intestines, a symptom of COVID-19, or due to excess fat in your stool (which happens when the dietary fat isn’t well absorbed during digestion, aka malabsorption).
But Freuman notes that if it is malabsorption, the color of your poop usually isn’t the only symptom. “[Stools] will often be very oily [and] kind of greasy,” she says. “You’ll have horrible smelling gas [and] you’ll be losing weight potentially.”
There are a couple different red poop meanings. One of the common causes of red poop is beets. (They can also tint your pee pink, too). If you notice your poop is red, the biggest thing is to make sure it’s not because there’s blood in your stool. While beets usually tint the whole stool, blood usually doesn’t. “You’re seeing either streaks of blood outside the stool, or drops of blood in the toilet,” says Freuman. That’s another reason to talk to your doctor because it could mean there’s internal bleeding or possibly colon cancer.
Dark or black poop
Taking iron supplements or Pepto Bismol can cause dark or black poop. If neither of these could be the culprit, then it’s a good idea to give your doctor a call. Tar-like, black stool can indicate bleeding in the gastrointestinal tract. If this, or another sudden color change, is also paired with other symptoms including vomiting, lightheadedness, or severe abdominal pain, experts say you should go straight to the emergency room.
Pale, gray, or white poop
If you see pale, gray, or white poop, Freuman recommends seeing a doctor. Bile is part of what pigments the stool, so if there’s almost no color at all, it may mean that there’s a blocked bile duct, she says. If left untreated, that could lead to an infection or liver disease.
Different poop shape meanings
The shape of your poop can give you a sense of your pelvic floor and sphincter function, says Freuman. If you see a long, thin poop, it may mean that your anal sphincter may be tight or not completely relaxed.
Pencil-thin poop can happen for a variety of reasons, including constipation, hemorrhoids, IBS, and a colon obstruction. It could also be a sign of pelvic floor dysfunction, which can be painful and impact your ability to relax and contract your pelvic floor (aka the muscles that help you go to the bathroom, among other things).
Small, pebble-like poop is typically a sign of constipation. Pebble poop can happen because of certain medications (including some antacids, antidepressants, diuretics, and iron supplements), or not getting enough fiber or fluids.
There are a whole host of things that can cause loose stool, says Freuman. Eating dairy when you’re lactose intolerant, consuming a lot of fiber, or experiencing a bacterial issue (like certain types of food poisoning) to name a few. If it passes in a few days, it’s likely no big deal.
Extra gas trapped in your poop (from certain foods) can cause poop to float instead of sink. Usually it’s nothing to be concerned about, but if it continues for more than a few days, it may be worth a doctor’s appointment to rule out more serious causes such as steatorrhea.
Now that you know what ‘sick’ poop looks like, what does healthy poop look like?
There’s a wide range of what a healthy poop can look like, says Freuman. Look at the Bristol stool chart, a poop shape chart widely used by medical providers to determine how healthy stool is, for example. Anything from a three to a five is considered healthy, she says. One and two, and six and seven, are probably not as great. “But it doesn’t need to look like a smooth sausagey snake … in order to be healthy.”
How you feel, and sudden changes in your bowel movements that persist for longer than a few days are more noteworthy, she says. Look out for any other symptoms. If you’re experiencing loose stools or diarrhea, for example, could you also have a stomach bug? In that case, it’s worth waiting it out and taking care of yourself until you feel better. If you’re noticing a particularly dark stool, think back to whether you recently took Pepto Bismol the day before. If you see red-tinted stool, did you have a salad full of beets?
More often than not, what you flush is just a reflection of what you’ve eaten or medications you’ve taken. If you’re seeing different colors, do a mental flip-through of what you’ve consumed recently, and know that variances are normal. But if you notice a sudden color change in your bowel movements that lasts longer than a few days, and nothing has changed about your diet, it may be worth paying attention too.