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There are book clubs with mimosas, finger foods and quiet chit-chat. Then there are book clubs that talk about poop.
Mine is the latter.
We’re a digital, long-distance book club. Five members strong, we span the world, from San Francisco to D.C. to Perth, Australia. Our video calls last two hours each. We catch up, eat junk food, gossip and then dig into our book. In the spring, we chose "Gut" by Giulia Enders, a nonfiction read that delves into the nitty gritty of the gut while also answering important questions we’ve always wondered: Why do we vomit? How do we actually prevent constipation? And exactly how much bacteria is in our gut’s microbiome? (Answer: 100 trillion. It weighs a total of 4.5 pounds.)
Naturally, because there’s a small section in the book about defecation and what your number two should and should not look like, my book club created a fun, supplemental homework assignment. One bright mind proposed that we track our bowel movements for two months, while logging the date, time, Bristol stool type, smelliness and any astute visual observations.
In one shared professional-looking Google spreadsheet, five of us recorded our daily bowel movements on separate tabs.
What I found after recording my waste for 42 days – I couldn’t always meet the assignment’s daily demands – was plenty useful. Over time, I recognized clear patterns that helped me make better choices about the food that was going into my body. I realized that I’m lactose-intolerant — a truth I’d been avoiding for the last few years. I also go multiple times per day.
What was going on with my gut? What factors contributed to this?
Let’s take a look — or, shall we say, a whiff — of my charts.
The homework assignment began on March 4. I started reading the preface of “Gut” — probably on the toilet, if I’m being honest.
By mid-March, I came face-to-face with my own lactose intolerance, which Enders says is actually just a “deficiency” in her chapter called “Allergies and Intolerances.”
I’d been dealing with flatulence for years (I’m sorry, co-workers, friends and family), but refused to believe that I, like many other Asians, couldn’t digest milk. I was special, right? Nope. The proof was in the toilet.
“In 75 percent of the world’s population, the gene for digesting lactose slowly begins to switch off as they get older,” she writes. “Outside of Western Europe, Australia, and the United States, adults who are tolerant to dairy products are a rarity.” (p. 62)
(The most common food intolerance in the Western Hemisphere, though, is trouble with fructose. A little bit of fruit sugar per day is fine, but people experience problems when exposed to large amounts of sugar, which is the reality we live in today.)
According to “Gut,” feces are three-quarters water. For the solid components:
• One-third consists of bacteria
• One-third is our indigestible vegetable fiber, so the more fruit and vegetables you eat, the more you push out per bowel movement
• One-third is a mixed bag of stuff the body wants to get rid of (food coloring, cholesterol, etc.)
If you empty your entire large intestine after a laxative — or a significant bowel movement, in my case — it can take up to three days before it’s full again.
On the other hand, those facing constipation can always eat plums.
By April, my book club decided to add two new columns to our fancy spreadsheet: “Floating?” and “Food eaten.”
By this time, I’d also learned the following:
1. Feces that don’t plummet straight to the bottom or sink slowly are more ideal, since it means you’ve probably digested all your nutrients properly.
2. Going three times a day is still a healthy frequency, and women’s large intestines are generally slightly more lethargic than men’s, possibly because of hormones. (p. 92) This explained why my other three friends were once-a-day types.
3. Sudden vomiting can be caused by a gastrointestinal virus, food or alcohol poisoning.
After this last entry, I didn’t record anything for the remaining 11 days. I got lazy.
But I will say this: I now choose soy milk over whole milk. I learned more about excrement than I ever thought possible. And I’m thankful for the magical, healthy microbiome that helps me push out all the good stuff every day.