Dieting and Gallstones

Dieting and


According to estimates, as many as 20 million
Americans have gallstones—solid deposits that
may form in the gallbladder. Most people with
gallstones do not know that they have them and
experience no symptoms (signs that a disease is
present). Others may have symptoms like pain
and nausea in the abdomen (the part of the
body that holds the stomach, intestines, and
other organs), often after meals. In some cases,
gallstones may cause serious health problems that
require the gallbladder to be removed.

Although it is not clear what causes gallstones,
many factors may increase your chances of having
problems related to gallstones. These factors
include having too much body fat, especially
around your waist, and losing weight very
quickly. This fact sheet will tell you more about
gallstones, how they are linked to obesity and
dieting, and how you may help prevent this very
common health problem.

How can I tell if I have gallstones?

Most people who have gallstones have no signs.
These gallstones are called “silent gallstones” and
do not need to be treated.

In some people, a gallstone may become stuck
in the narrow canal, or duct, that carries bile
from the gallbladder to the small intestine. The
blockage may cause the gallbladder, ducts, or
more rarely, the liver or pancreas to become

Signs of gallstones or a gallstone attack include

¦¦severe pain in the upper-right side of the
abdomen that starts suddenly and lasts from
30 minutes to many hours

¦¦pain under the right shoulder or in the right
shoulder blade

¦¦indigestion after eating foods high in fat or
protein, including desserts and fried foods

Gallstone attacks often take place during the

Symptoms of a serious gallbladder

You may want to seek help right away if you
have any of these symptoms:

..abdominal pain that lasts more than 5

..clay-colored stools

..fever or chills

..nausea and vomiting

..yellowish color of the skin or of the whites
of the eyes

What causes gallstones?

What causes gallstones is not clear. Most gallstones
are made up of cholesterol, a type of fat made in
the liver and obtained from some foods.

Gallstones may form when:

¦¦the liver releases too much cholesterol into
the bile

¦¦there are not enough bile salts in the bile to
dissolve the cholesterol

¦¦there are other substances in the bile that
cause the cholesterol to form crystals

¦¦the gallbladder does not empty completely or
often enough, which concentrates the bile

Gallstones are more common among women
and adults ages 40 and older than among other
groups. The female sex hormone estrogen may
help explain why gallstones are more common
among women than among men. Estrogen may
increase the amount of cholesterol in the bile and
decrease gallbladder movement, which may lead
to gallstones.

Other factors that may increase your chances of
developing gallstones are these:


¦¦family history of gallstones

¦¦high triglycerides (a type of fat in the blood)

¦¦lack of physical activity

¦¦low HDL (good) cholesterol

¦¦obesity, particularly a large waist size


¦¦rapid weight loss

Some drugs may also increase your chances
of getting gallstones. Among them are drugs
that have estrogen, such as birth control pills
and hormone replacement therapy (medicine
that may be given to some women to address
problems related to menopause). Taking drugs
that lower cholesterol levels in the blood may
also make it more likely that you will develop
gallstones, as some of these drugs may make the
liver release more cholesterol into the bile.

How may obesity increase my chances of
getting gallstones?

Being overweight or obese may increase your
chances of having gallstones, especially if you are
female. Researchers have found that people who
are obese may produce high levels of cholesterol.

This may produce bile having more cholesterol
than it can dissolve. When this happens,
gallstones can form. People who are obese may
also have large gallbladders that do not work well.
Some studies have shown that men and women
who carry large amounts of fat around their waist
may be more likely to develop gallstones than
those who carry fat around their hips and thighs.

Although rapid weight loss may increase your
chances of developing gallstones (see the next
section), obesity may be a bigger problem. In
addition to gallstones, obesity is linked to many
serious health problems, including diabetes, heart
disease, stroke, and certain types of cancer.

For those who are overweight or obese, even a
small weight loss of 10 percent of body weight
over a period of 6 months can improve health.
In addition, weight loss may bring other benefits
such as better mood, increased energy, and
positive self-image.

How may rapid weight loss increase my
chances of getting gallstones?

Losing weight very quickly may increase your
chances of forming gallstones. If you have silent
gallstones, you may also be more likely to develop
symptoms. People who lose more than 3 pounds
per week may have a greater chance of getting
gallstones than those who lose weight more slowly.

Some ways of treating obesity, such as weight-loss
surgery and very low-calorie diets (VLCDs), may
increase your chances of developing gallstones by
promoting rapid weight loss.

Weight-loss surgery is an operation on the
stomach and/or intestines to help people lose
weight by limiting food intake and/or by
affecting how food is digested.

A very low-calorie diet is a very restrictive diet
that uses a commercially prepared formula
providing about 800 calories per day. A health
care provider closely supervises these types of

Is weight cycling a problem?

Weight cycling, or losing and regaining weight
repeatedly, may also lead to gallstones. The
more weight you lose and regain during a
cycle, the greater your chances of developing

When trying to lose weight on your own, stay
away from “crash diets” that promise to help
you drop the pounds quickly. Aim for losing
weight at a slower pace and keeping it off over

Several factors may increase your chances of
having problems with gallstones after weight-loss
surgery or a VLCD. They include:

¦¦existing gallstones before your surgery
or VLCD, especially if they are causing

¦¦a large amount of excess weight before the
surgery or VLCD

¦¦very rapid weight loss after the surgery or

Your chances of developing gallstones may vary
by type of treatment. Diets or surgeries that cause
very rapid weight loss may be more likely to lead
to gallstone problems than diets or surgeries that
lead to slower weight loss.

If you are starting a VLCD or having weight-loss
surgery, talk to your health care provider about
how to reduce your chances of getting gallstones.

How may I safely lose weight and reduce
my chances of getting gallstones?

Losing weight at a slow pace may make it less
likely that you will develop gallstones. Depending
on your starting weight, experts recommend
losing about 1/2 to 2 pounds per week.

When making healthy food choices to help you
lose weight, you can choose food that may also
lower your chances of developing gallstones.

Experts recommend the following:

¦¦Eat more foods high in fiber, like brown rice,
oats, and whole wheat bread.

¦¦Eat fewer refined grains and less sugar.

¦¦Eat healthy fats, like fish oil and olive oil, to
help your gallbladder contract and empty on
a regular basis.

Bottle of olive oil and olives
Regular physical activity, which may improve
your health, is also related to a reduced chance of
developing gallstones. To lose weight or prevent
weight gain, aim for 300 minutes (5 hours) of
moderately intense aerobic activity each week.
Aerobic activity uses your large muscles (back,
chest, and legs), increases your heart rate, and may
make you breathe harder. To sustain weight loss,
you may need at least 60 to 90 minutes a day.

If you are thinking about starting an eating and
physical activity plan to lose weight, talk with
your health care provider first. Together, you
can discuss various eating and physical activity
programs, your medical history, and the benefits
and risks of losing weight, including the chances
of developing gallstones.

How are gallstones treated?

Silent gallstones are usually left alone and
sometimes disappear on their own. Gallstones
that are causing symptoms are usually treated.

The most common way to treat gallstones that
are causing symptoms is to remove the organ.
This operation is called a cholecystectomy. In
most cases, surgeons can use a laparoscope, a
thin, lighted tube that shows them what is inside
your abdomen. The surgery is done while you are
under general anesthesia (asleep and pain-free).
The surgeon makes small cuts in your abdomen
to insert the surgical tools and take out the

Most people go home on the same day or the
day after this surgery. If there were problems
during your surgery, or if you have bleeding, a lot
of pain, or a fever, you may need to stay in the
hospital longer. In general, you can expect to go
home once you are able to eat and drink without
pain and are able to walk without help. It may
take about a week for you to fully recover.

If surgery is not a good option for you, your
health care provider may give you drugs
to dissolve your gallstones. However, this
approach may take months or years to dissolve
the gallstones. In addition, you may develop
gallstones again.

Researchers are looking into other treatments for
gallstone problems, including drugs that affect
how your body uses cholesterol. Your health care
provider can help determine which option is best
for you.