It may not be a topic typically talked about at the dinner table or a cocktail party, but most people are actually somewhat obsessed with it. And with good reason: The state of your gastro-intestinal tract (as well as the quality and quantity of its output) is a great barometer of the health of your body. “The GI tract is a processing unit that metabolizes all of the nutrients you take in and eliminates all of the body’s waste,” explains Dr. Amy Foxx-Orenstein, president of the American College of Gastroenterology. “What comes through it is reflective of how well or how ill the body is.”

Hard and dry
The amount of time it takes for the food you eat to make its way through the gastro-intestinal system and exit into the toilet will have an impact on the consistency of your stool. “Intestinal transit averages 40 to 45 hours from when you eat to when it comes out,” says Foxx-Orenstein. If it stays in the GI tract for longer than that, fluid is re-absorbed into the body and the stool becomes harder and dryer. Certain medications—like blood pressure drugs, antidepressants and histamines—can slow down the GI tract. Constipation, which has a myriad of causes, will lead to harder, drier stools (since you’re going less often, your stool will stall in the system and the fluid re-absorbed). For some people, a diet high in dairy can be a cause of constipation, so if you are experiencing problems going (and have dry, hard-to-pass stool when you do finally go), it is worth reducing your dairy intake for a week or two to see if that helps. And being dehydrated can also lead to this problem because if the body is lacking in water, it will draw it—and conserve it—from wherever it can find it.

Little lumps
“An ideal stool looks like a torpedo—it should be large, soft, fluffy and easy to pass,” says Foxx-Orenstein. But when conditions are less than ideal, the stool may become more like little deer pellets. Again, transit time may be part of the issue because slow-moving stool will lose fluid, making them less fluffy and lumpier. A lack of fiber in the diet may also to be to blame. Beware if you’re following a weight-loss plan (such as Atkins) that focuses on increasing protein and decreasing carbohydrates, since that can leave you with a diet that’s low in fiber. And since fiber holds on to fluid, a lack of it will lead to harder, pellet-like poops that may be more difficult to pass.

Too liquid
Your body secretes about eight liters of fluid during the course of a day—from the stomach, salivary glands and pancreas—to help your food get broken down and make its way through the digestive system. Under normal, healthy conditions, the majority of that fluid is absorbed along the way, resulting in those sought-after soft, fluffy stools. But if food passes through too quickly, there isn’t enough time for all of that liquid to absorb, and the stool emerges in a too-soft state. The reasons for such super-quick transit could include a sudden increase in fiber in the diet, or a bacterial or viral infection. “When there is an infection, the body produces toxins which cause water to be released,” says Dr. Michael Farber, director of the Executive Health Program at Hackensack University Medical Center. “Things move through very quickly through your system because the body wants to get rid of them.”

Pencil thin
Thin may be the preferable state for many things—figures, cell phones, television screens—but when it comes to bowel movements, thin is definitely not a good thing. Specifically, thin stools could be an indicator of colon cancer, or its precursor, polyps in the colon. “Whenever you have mass in the colon that creates blockage, anything that needs to be pushed past that mass will become thinner,” Farber says. “If you are seeing thin stools on a consistent basis, that it something you should have looked at by your doctor.”

Looking pale or gray
Normal stool can come in a range of colors (influenced by what you eat and what medications you take, among other factors). But if your stool has an unhealthy hue, particularly if it’s pale or grayish in tone, you could have problems somewhere along your digestive tract. The liver excretes bile to help break down fats in the food you eat, and that bile also adds color to the stool. But if there’s a blockage in the liver—or in the tubes through which the bile travels—the stool might take on a too-pale appearance. Also, if you are suffering from a pancreatic disorder, the stool might look gray because it will be lacking the color imbued by the digestive enzymes produced in that organ.