Most people are aware that diet plays a major role in gallstone production. And, man, if we can avoid gallbladder issues, we definitely want to because these stones hurt!
The gallbladder is in charge of collecting bile from the liver, concentrating it, and then releasing it into the small intestine. This bile breaks up dietary fat into smaller molecules that can be further digested by other enzymes. The presence of dietary fat thus is the primary driver of gallbladder emptying. Gallstones most often form when the gallbladder isn’t regularly emptied.
For example, when you follow a fat-restricted diet, gallbladder contraction is reduced, which can lead to sludge buildup in the gallbladder ducts, potentially resulting in eventual gallstone formation. The pain most often comes when the gallbladder empties and passes a stone that is too large to successfully make it through the duct. It gets stuck and a painful blockage occurs. With all this being said, it is important to note that it takes about five to 20 years on average to develop a gallstone and takes about eight years for associated pain to develop.
Research shows that diets high in carbohydrates from sugar and grains and low in healthy fats, along with being overweight or obese, puts us at an increased risk for developing gallstones. Vegetable oils and trans fats have also been shown to inflame the gallbladder. We actually need to eat plenty of healthy fats to keep the gallbladder active, working and normally emptying; if we don’t, then sludge builds up, hardens and stones can form. Unhealthy weight-loss diets such as low-fat diets, diets high in vegetable oils, very low calorie diets, starvation, crash diets or yo-yo dieting, whereby weight is repeatedly lost and regained, can increase risk of gallstones. When dropping weight, it’s important to continue with a good intake of healthy fats. A 2014 study published in the journal of Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, found that 45% of people who lost weight through a low-fat diet developed gallstones, while none of the high-fat dieters developed them. Amazing!
There are, of course, other factors that increase risk of gallstones and gallbladder disease than just diet:
Obesity: Even if you are just moderately overweight, you are at increased risk as cholesterol levels in the gallbladder are usually higher. Gender: Estrogen also seems to increase cholesterol deposits in the gallbladder, which is why women are twice as likely than men to develop stones. Age: Gallstones are six times more frequent if you are older than 60. Ethnicity: Risk of production is lower in Asian and African populations, higher in European and North American populations, and extremely high in Native American and Mexican populations. Genetics: According to the 2013 Advances in Clinical Chemistry research publication, the tendency to develop gallstones and gallbladder disease often runs in families, indicating a genetic link. Gallstones can form even if you eat properly. However, maintaining a good diet supported by healthy fats keeps the gallbladder working smoothly. Healthy fats, such as first cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil, enable the gallbladder to empty, helping keep the bile ducts clear from gallstone formation. There is no proven method of preventing gallstones, but research suggests some possibilities, which include: 1) eating three meals daily, 2) eating a diet that includes healthy fats and avoids processed vegetable oils like canola oil, corn oil and soybean oil, 3) maintaining a healthy body composition for your frame, and 4) exercising at least 30 minutes a day for most days of the week.
If you have had your gallbladder removed, you should still consider following the above recommendations; your body still produces bile and requires healthy fats. If this is the case for you, try eating three meals per day at the same time each day (preferably no snacks between) to enhance a sense of rhythm for bile production.
Ashley Lucas holds a Ph.D. in sports nutrition and chronic disease and is a licensed, registered dietitian. She is the founder and owner of Ph.D. Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering in-office and at-home/virtual weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. To contact her, visit www.myphdweightloss.com or call 764-4133.