Most people never give a thought to the health of their gallbladder. The pear-shaped organ does have an important job, collecting and storing bile -- the fluid that helps the body digest fats. But unlike the heart, liver, and kidneys, the gallbladder isn't necessary to keep the body healthy and functioning. Even when it isn't working as well as it should and gallstones develop, most people are unaware that there is a problem.
Yet in a small percentage of people, gallstones can trigger a variety of symptoms, such as abdominal pain, bloating, nausea, and vomiting. When gallstone symptoms are frequent, recurrent, and especially uncomfortable, the typical treatment is surgery to remove the gallbladder.
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"The majority of people with gallstones never develop symptoms their whole lives," says John Martin, MD, associate professor of medicine and surgery, and director of endoscopy at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. "Once you start to develop symptoms, you're going to need to have the gallbladder taken out."
Although diet doesn't directly cause gallbladder problems -- and it won't cure them -- watching what you eat and keeping a healthy weight might help you prevent gallstones from forming and avoid some discomfort if you do develop gallstones.
Diet and Gallstone Risk
A number of risk factors contribute to the formation of gallstones, including a family history of gallstones and gender. Women are twice as likely as men to develop them. Body weight is also a factor; the risk of gallstones is higher in people who are overweight and obese.
Diets that are high in fat and cholesterol and low in fiber appear to play a role. "There's a lot of things you can't change in that list, but you can certainly influence your diet," says F. Taylor Wootton III, MD, clinical counselor, associate professor of internal medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and a member of the American Gastroenterological Association governing board.
If you're overweight, try to lose the extra weight; but do it gradually. There is a link between quick weight loss and gallstone formation. Crash or "yo-yo" diets can cause the liver to release more cholesterol into the bile, disrupting the normal balance of cholesterol and bile salts. That extra cholesterol can form into crystals, leading to gallstones, Wootton says.