Toilet humor, if not the greatest form of comedy, is at least a top-three contender. It's an easy argument to make: poop is the great equalizer. But despite the fact that everyone poops, #turdtalk is still inevitably taboo. Relationships with poop ("relationshits") stem from cultural understandings of waste and function, and the human urge to shy away from everything that isn’t “clean” creates an atmosphere of shame around universal topics that we’d all benefit from discussing.
In light of that, we feel it’s time to pull back the curtain on crap: your poop is more than an off-color joke—it can hold the keys to your past, present, and future. In fact, explicating your excrement can provide great insight into your digestive health and body.
If you don’t speak the language of poop, it’s hard to know what it’s telling you. That’s why we asked Dr. Niket Sonpal, gastroenterologist at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor at Tuoro College of Osteopathic Medicine, all your burning crap questions—why some foods come out whole, if there’s really a “beets butt” phenomenon, and whether or not gum stays in your bowels forever.
"Our gallbladder responds to fatty foods by releasing bile, which is green in color."
The digestive system as we know it has been the same for as long as humans have existed, which is about 200,000 years. If our bodies are so good at breaking down food, then why does some of it "slip through the cracks" and come out whole in your poop? Sonpal says occasionally seeing undigested food is normal.
“There are certain types of indigestible food that our body just evolutionary has not adapted to break down both mechanically as well as from a chemical standpoint,” Sonpal explains. “So, cellulose, any kind of fibrous food that are vegetables, a lot of them can’t be broken down and you may see them come out as whole. Corn kernels are an excellent example.” He added that the reason this happens is because we as a society aren’t very good at chewing food. (Think back to your last sad lunch break at your desk—did you savor every bite?) Another reason foods don't break down is stress; it can increase how fast your bowels move and speed up your “normal passage time.”
Sonpal explained that it normally takes whatever you eat about 24 to 36 hours to make its way out, and debunked the myth that gum stays in your digestive tract for years. “There’s no credence to that at all,” he says. “No foods will stay in your tract a long time, but certain foods will come out faster than others, like spicy food.”
Besides affecting your rate of digestion, specific foods also impact the color of your poop. I thought the Portlandia “beets butt” skit was just that—a parody—but Sonpal says he averages one or two calls a week about beet poop: “We’ve seen patients come to the emergency room when they’ve eaten a warm beet salad—which is very popular in the summer. They show up and say, ‘Oh, I think I’m dying.’” But occasional poop discoloration can be normal, even if the hue seems totally unnatural.
“We’re talking Ecto-Cooler neon green,” Sonpal answered when I asked about the strangest poop he’s encountered. This can happen when we eat food that’s high in fat. “Our gallbladder responds to fatty foods by releasing bile, which is green in color,” he explains. “More often than not, your body will absorb that bile and it’ll re-circulate, but if you have more of that, your stool will turn green.”
When I tried to mention that Burger King Japan’s black burger was rumored to cause these electric stinkers, Sonpal knew what I’d say before I even finished my sentence. “We did have a patient who flew directly from Japan, had eaten that upon leaving, and showed up here in the emergency room with green stool.” News of the black burger's "power" quickly spread on the internet, where the resultant green deuces were memeified endlessly—so much so that companies thought they could profit from the hype by making green poop Halloween costumes.
While turd apparel, emojis, and cartoon characters create poop iconography that suggests we’re comfortable with our bodily functions, does our culture back that up? “Most people say they don’t look at their poo,” Sonpal says. “But I don’t think that’s true. Everyone looks.” And if you don’t—maybe it’s time to start.