What is your poo telling you about your health? It's the burning question that has everybody's head in the toilet these days.
Mar. 12, 2008 | I looked, all right? This morning, I took a long and unflinching gaze. How do I say this without sounding boastful? There in the bowl was a real beauty, my reward for yesterday's hearty oatmeal breakfast and black bean and rice dinner. It was the kind of (how do we settle on a comfortable euphemism?) ejecta that would make Mom proud.
I consulted "What's Your Poo Telling You?" my handy field guide to human stools, and discovered that mine had an ideal shape, sinking nicely to the bottom of the bowl. Because of its textbook-perfect hue -- no alarming green, red or yellowish tinge proving my bile is diseased -- I can be reassured that I and my hardworking colon are healthy. I can proudly say I'm an excretion achiever!
I am hardly alone in poring over "What's Your Poo Telling You?" Not only does poo have a lot to tell you, but lately scores of Americans seem anxious to listen. Last spring, Chronicle Books printed 20,000 copies of the little brown book, mostly to be sold as a novelty in Urban Outfitters. Today it has sold more than 225,000 in big-box bookstores nationwide. Apparently its success is proof that at long last poo has come out of the water closet.
Indeed, what the book's coauthors, Josh Richman and Anish Sheth, M.D., say was once regarded as "malodorous waste" can now be openly regarded for what it is: a miracle of creation, a crystal ball of intestinal health, a feng shui of the derrière. "Like a snowflake, each poo has a wondrous uniqueness," they write. They deconstruct specimens such as the "log jam," "a cruel reminder of your inability to perform," and "hanging chads," "stubborn pieces of turd that cling."
And for those who aspire to leave behind a shameful history of faulty stools? "The ideal poo is a pillowy soft, singular bolus of stool that exits the body with minimal effort," says Sheth. And that paragon of poo is achieved by consuming plenty of fruits, vegetables and fiber superstars: beans, peas, seeds and nuts.
But wait, there's more on the fecal front. Author Danielle Svetcov is set to publish "The 'Regular' Gourmet Everyday: Sumptuous Recipes for the Gastro-intestinally Challenged." Tens of thousands of Americans are signing onto the Cleanse diet, a sort of spiritual-cum-vegan Roto-Rooter for the intestines. "Functional foods" like Activia yogurt aren't selling by the cases because they are low-fat. That's so 20th century. They are being hyped for how they "maintain digestive health." Cutting-edge Japanese toilets can read your droppings for dietary deficiencies. But there's a far more convincing sign that poo has hit the big time.
Much as they did with eating disorders and sex obsessions, viewers of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" are being invited to stop withholding about this most intimate and private act. Encouraged by the charismatic Dr. Mehmet Oz, a cardiovascular surgeon who appears regularly on the show, we are being told to look before we flush, to study what we've produced as a talisman of health. When it comes to diet, we need to make "number two" our "number one priority."
On "Oprah," women are pouring out their troubles on the toilet. Susan talks freely about her constipation. Maureen, a mothfer of four, lets loose entirely. "My hemorrhoids feel so bad that it's like grapes hanging out of my rear," she confesses. "Sometimes they hurt so bad, I can't get out of bed for two days."
Clearly, says Oz, Maureen and Susan, like millions of white-flour-addicted Americans, aren't listening to what their stools are telling them. (Really, who knew the intestinal tract was so chatty?) "'Help! Help!' Their big colon is saying, 'I need something from you,'" says Oz. If Maureen and Susan stop eating their children's leftover Happy Meals and start eating more lima beans, oh, the satisfaction, wastewise, they would realize.
"You want to hear what the stool, the poop, sounds like when it hits the water," Oz instructs. "If it sounds like a bombardier, you know, 'plop, plop, plop,' that's not right because it means you're constipated. It means the food is too hard by the time it comes out. It should hit the water like a diver from Acapulco hits the water." Oz makes a "swoosh" sound -- the sound of an Olympian excrement champion.
So why poo, and why now? Well, when it comes to the success of "What's Your Poo Telling You?" there are two good reasons that two men in their 30s, who were potty-trained with the children's scatological classic "Everyone Poops," would grow up to write an adult version that speaks to their generation. No. 1, now that baby boomers are decidedly middle-aged, they're becoming ever more aware of physiological changes that make poop an important topic of conversation. No. 2, we're experiencing a baby boomer boomlet, with millions of new parents focusing, as new parents will, on their wee ones' output.
Moreover, this is the natural progression of a nation obsessed, and browbeaten, about eating healthy. So we've moved from mouth southward, from fretting over what goes in our mouth to what comes out the other end.
The moment is ripe to come clean about our inner workings, say coauthors Sheth and Richman, who met when they were undergraduates at Brown University (where else?). Sheth, along with other collegiate pastimes, developed what he calls the PQI, or Poo Quality Index, that he and fellow students would use to compare the superiority of their bowel movements. Years later, the pair reconnected when Richman, who works in Silicon Valley to develop clean-energy technology, got back in touch with Sheth, who'd since become a gastroenterologist fellow at Yale University School of Medicine. "Poo has been in a societal sewer," says Richman. "It's something people didn't feel comfortable talking about outside a small circle of friends. What we're seeing is a cultural evolution where it's no longer a taboo subject."
Reading Richman and Sheth's book is similar to pulling an enormous ball of wax out of your ear. Although you know you should be disgusted, you can't stop looking at and obsessing over it. Quite simply, theirs is a fascinating read. ("Two thumbs up! Gripping and loaded!") You feel relieved to get to the bottom of so many rectal mysteries, to find out that certain bathroom experiences -- sometimes seemingly weird and extraordinary -- are not signs that you're a freak of nature.
When a kernel of corn makes its rear exit and comes out perfectly intact, it's not a personal failing that proves you're a bad child who didn't listen to his mother and failed to chew properly. Instead, this common phenomenon, "deja poo," refers to certain foods like corn that have insoluble fibers that are difficult for even the most efficient digestive tract to break down. "Regularity" spans the range from three times a day to three times a week. And a case of nerves -- whether before an important business meeting or a performance -- can induce "performance enhancing poo."
"With so many of these experiences, we've had a lot of people come up to us and say, 'I thought that was just me,'" says Richman. He adds that since the book came out, people are so anxious to talk about their stools that almost every dinner party discussion descends into potty talk, conjuring up a scene straight out of a Buñuel film.
Who knew it's better to squat than sit? Or that because of a heavy fiber diet, the national average for detritus in southern Asia is three times that of the waste-makers in England. Then there's the rarely discussed form of toilet elation, "poo-phoria."