Everyone is familiar with heart-healthy diets, but what about gallbladder-healthy diets? There are very few diet and recipe books on the topic, but including nutrient-rich foods in your diet will keep this pear-shaped organ in good health. Certain gallbladder diets and foods can maintain a healthy gallbladder to help prevent stomach pain from gallstones.
“Gallbladder disease is common, but it’s an organ that most individuals don’t think a lot about until there’s a problem because we’re not aware of its primary function to store bile that helps us absorb fats as part of the digestive process,” says Dr. Brooks D. Cash, chief of Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth Houston).
What Is the Gallbladder?
The gallbladder is located under the liver and is attached to the intestines. Its primary function is to store and concentrate bile, the fluid produced in the liver to help digest fats from food. After eating, the gallbladder discharges bile through a tiny tube, known as the bile duct, into the small intestine.
The gallbladder effectively does its job unless something blocks the bile duct, like gallstones. This happens when substances in the bile — typically cholesterol or bilirubin — harden over time and form gallstones, the most common disorder of the gallbladder. Gallstones can vary in size and quantity. They can be as small as a grain of sand or grow as large as a golf ball, and can form as one large gallstone or hundreds of small gallstones.
While most gallstones are painless and can resolve on their own, the smaller gallstones are more likely to travel through the bile duct and cause an obstruction in the flow of bile. This blockage can cause a sharp pain — known as a gallbladder attack or biliary colic — in the upper right section of your abdomen.
Gallbladder Diet and Gallstone Risk
A number of risk factors contribute to the formation of gallstones, including gender, body weight and diet. In the United States, an estimated 10% to 15% of the adult population develops gallstones, with approximately 1 million cases presenting each year.
According to the American College of Gastroenterology, women between the ages of 20 and 60 years are three times more likely to develop gallstones than men. Gallstones occur in up to 20% of American women by the age of 60.
Body weight is also a major factor. The risk of gallstones is higher in people who have overweight or obesity.
“Researchers have found that people who have obesity may have higher levels of cholesterol in their bile, which can lead to the formation of gallstones,” Cash says.
In addition, people with obesity may also have larger gallbladders that do not function well.
Crash diets can also cause the liver to discharge more cholesterol into the bile that can disturb the normal balance of cholesterol and bile, Cash says.
“That extra cholesterol can form into crystals that eventually form into gallstones,” he explains. “That’s why diet is so important and where people can make the biggest difference in how they maintain a healthy gallbladder.”
[READ: Exercises to Lower Cholesterol.]
Gallbladder Diets: What to Know
A balanced diet loaded with vegetables and fruits is one of the top ways to improve and protect the health of any gallbladder. Vegetables and fruits are packed with nutrients, vitamins and fiber. Whole grains — such as brown rice, oats and whole-wheat bread — should be added to your gallbladder diet, as well.
Whether or not you are at risk for gallstones, it’s important to maintain a healthy weight and eat a diet that is low in saturated fat and cholesterol, moderate in calories and high in fiber. Consistent intake of healthy fats from fresh foods — such as olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, eggs, fatty fish — is important in keeping the gallbladder healthy and bile flow consistent. Numerous studies, including a 2022 study published in the International Journal of Preventive Medicine, have shown that people who followed a diet high in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats had a reduced risk of developing gallstones.
Bitter foods are also extremely useful in helping the gallbladder to contract, explains Rachel Silva, a registered dietitian with the Nutrition Clinic for Digestive Health in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Think arugula, citrus, citrus peels, fennel seeds, dandelion greens, kale, watercress, artichoke, cranberries, dill and ginger,” Silva says. “My favorite ways to add those to a diet is to always go for a dark, bitter leafy green with a salad, adding herbs like dill and ginger when cooking, and using citrus fruits and peels for an afternoon tea or flavored water.”
Foods for a Healthy Gallbladder
Low-fat foods are typically a staple in many diets, but experts emphasize the importance of healthy fats in meals.
“Decades of low-fat dieting and fear of fats have left a lot of people with stagnant gallbladders,” Silva adds. “In practice, we do see low fat intake at the root cause of gallbladder issues, nutrient deficiencies and improper detoxification.”
For a healthy gallbladder, incorporate the following foods into your diet:
— Citrus fruits.
— Dark greens, including arugula, dandelion and kale.
— Fatty fish.
— Low-fat dairy.
— Nuts, particularly almonds and peanuts.
— Olive oil.
— Whole grains, including whole-wheat bread, brown rice, oats, bran cereal.
Foods to Avoid With Gallbladder Issues
Researchers say many gallbladder issues stem from the high consumption of refined carbohydrates and saturated and trans fats commonly found in the modern Western diet, which promote the formation of gallstones.
“When symptoms of gallstones occur, it typically happens as the organ tries to squeeze and some of the gallstone is blocking the bile,” Cash says. “It’s the squeezing that causes pain because the bile can’t get through.”
Changing your diet won’t get rid of gallstones that are already there, but eating a healthy diet with a balanced variety of nutrients and limiting the amount of saturated fats and cholesterol-heavy foods may help ease symptoms or prevent future gallstones.
Try to avoid or limit these high-fat foods in your diet:
— Fried foods.
— Highly processed foods, including doughnuts, pies, cookies.
— Red, processed meats.
— Soft drinks.
— Whole-milk dairy products, including cheese, ice cream, butter.
6 Tips for a Healthy Gallbladder
1. Don’t miss meals
Every time you eat, your gallbladder releases bile for proper digestion. When you skip meals, the bile can build up. This build-up can elevate cholesterol levels in the gallbladder. Over time, the waxy fats can harden into gallstones. Some bile acids may make you more likely to develop gallbladder cancer.
2. Pick whole grains
They pack lots of rough fiber, which lowers your low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, also referred to as LDL or “bad,” cholesterol. That protects your heart and helps keep gallstones away. Fiber gets your digestive system moving and flushes bile from your body. Aim to eat more high-fiber foods — such as like whole-grain bread, pasta, brown or wild rice, oatmeal, barley and bulgur — and other foods that can help you lower your cholesterol.
3. Load up on fruits and veggies
Fresh fruits and vegetables are always good for your health and that’s no different for the gallbladder. Fruits and greens are bursting with vitamins, including vitamins C and E. One study found that taking a vitamin C supplement helped reduce the risk of developing gallstones.
4. Avoid crash diets
Losing a lot of weight quickly keeps your gallbladder from emptying properly, which can eventually lead to the formation of gallstones. To lose weight in a healthy manner, aim to shed 1 to 2 pounds a week by eating a healthy, balanced diet and incorporating regular exercise into your routine.
5. Add olive oil
It turns out that this core ingredient of the popular Mediterranean diet is also good for your gallbladder. Olive oil is a healthy source of unsaturated fat, which helps the gallbladder to clear out. Studies have proven that olive oil’s unique properties help the gallbladder empty to reduce disease risk.
6. Go nuts
Nuts offer tons of nutrition as they are high in fiber and healthy fat. They also have lots of plant sterols, compounds that block your body from absorbing cholesterol, which can may help prevent gallstones from forming. In fact, consuming nuts regularly has been shown to protect against gallstones and to reduce the need of a cholecystectomy, a surgical procedure commonly performed to remove the gallbladder to treat gallstones and other gallbladder issues.
Diet After Gallbladder Surgery
In addition to treating gallstones, doctors may recommend a cholecystectomy if you have inflammation of the gallbladder, large polyps in the gallbladder or inflammation of the pancreas due to gallstones. There are two surgical methods for the procedure: a minimally invasive (laparoscopic) cholecystectomy, which typically requires only a short recovery time of one week, and a traditional (open) cholecystectomy, which can take four to six weeks to fully recover. While the surgery can effectively relieve pain and common problems associated with gallbladder issues, it’s common for some people to develop an unpleasant side effect of the procedure: diarrhea. Approximately 25% of cholecystectomy patients experience temporary diarrhea after having their gallbladders removed, but the loose and frequent bowel movements can last a few weeks to a few months.
Some experts believe the culprit behind the uncomfortable condition may be due to eating certain foods — such as dairy and high-fat foods — that cause an increase in bile acids in the large intestines, causing a laxative effect.
“Fat digestion post removal is not as efficient because the liver is slowly producing and releasing bile, which will slowly trickle into the intestines,” Silva says.
Your diet after gallbladder removal plays an important role in mitigating symptoms.
Tips to help improve diarrhea after gallbladder removal:
— Limit high-fat foods. Fried, greasy foods, fatty sauces and other high-fat foods should be avoided after the surgery. Choose low-fat meals with no more than 3 grams of fat in each serving.
— Boost fiber. Extra fiber in your diet will help regulate bowel movements. Adding soluble fibers like oats, peas, beans and barley will help achieve a higher fiber diet. Be sure to add fiber slowly to avoid unnecessary cramping and gas.
— Smaller, frequent meals. By eating smaller portions of food, but more frequent meals, the body will be able to discharge bile at a more constant rate that could lead to less diarrhea.
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The Gallbladder Diet: Foods to Eat With Gallbladder Issues originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 11/03/22: The story was previously published and has been updated with new information.