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.
"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.
Healthy Foods for the Gallbladder
Whether or not you are at risk for gallstones, it's always a good idea to keep your body at a healthy weight and eat a diet that is low in fat and cholesterol, moderate in calories, and high in fiber.
All of the following are healthy foods for your gallbladder, as well as the rest of your body:
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Whole grains (whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, bran cereal)
- Lean meat, poultry, and fish
- Low-fat dairy products
Certain foods have been studied for their potential to prevent gallbladder problems or reduce symptoms. For example, some research has indicated that drinking caffeinated coffee lowers the risk of gallstones in both men and women. Drinking moderate amounts of alcohol has also been linked to a reduced incidence of gallstones. In one study, women who ate at least one serving of peanuts a day had a 20% lower chance of having their gallbladder removed compared to women who rarely ate peanuts or peanut butter. But the evidence is still far too preliminary to recommend any of these foods solely for the purpose of preventing gallbladder problems.
Foods to Avoid With Gallbladder Problems
Researchers say many gallbladder symptoms stem from the modern Western diet, which is high in refined carbohydrates and saturated fats. "If you're having symptoms from gallstones, it's because as your gallbladder tries to squeeze, some of the gallstone is blocking the outflow of bile that is stored in your gallbladder," Martin says. "You're squeezing against a closed door, and that's why it hurts. If you eat fatty foods, that makes it squeeze more."
Changing your diet won't get rid of gallstones that are already there, but eating a healthy, balanced variety of nutrients and limiting the amount of saturated fats and cholesterol-heavy foods you eat may help ease your symptoms.
Try to avoid or limit these high-fat foods in your diet:
- Fried foods
- Highly processed foods (doughnuts, pie, cookies)
- Whole-milk dairy products (cheese, ice cream, butter)
- Fatty red meat
Also steer clear of very low-calorie diets. If you are overweight, aim for a gradual weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds a week by sticking to a healthy, well-balanced diet and getting regular exercise. Always diet under your doctor's supervision.
If you continue to have symptoms, see your doctor. You may need surgery to have your gallbladder removed.
Many other things also affect your odds of developing gallstones, including:
- Gender (Gallstones are more common in women than in men.)
- Family history of gallstones
- Fasting often
- Not being physically active
- Conditions such as cirrhosis, diabetes, or sickle cell disease.
Certain medications can also make you more likely to develop gallstones.