Gallstones are a common gallbladder problem that affect up to 15% of the U.S. population. Eating the right foods can go a long way toward keeping your gallbladder healthy and preventing gallstones.
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What Does Your Gallbladder Do?
Your gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ that sits under your liver and is part of your digestive system.
The gallbladder’s job is to store and dispense bile, a liquid made in your liver. Bile helps to break down fat during digestion. When you eat, your gallbladder releases bile into your small intestine, where it mixes with food.
Sometimes tiny, stone-like objects form in your gallbladder. Commonly called gallstones, these can be made of tiny bits of cholesterol or fragments of blood pigment. Sometimes certain medical conditions of the bloodstream or cholesterol management will make it more likely for people to form gallstones. These stones often stay put in your gallbladder and don’t cause problems. But occasionally, gallstones travel and get stuck in the tiny tube-like ducts that connect your gallbladder, liver, and small intestine.
“Diagnosing gallbladder disease or the presence of symptomatic gallstones can be tricky and require several tests to exclude other conditions,” says Dr. Jennifer Chennat, UPMC gastroenterologist. “If you are experiencing pain in the upper abdomen or nausea/vomiting after eating, please consult with your health care provider promptly, and consider a referral to a gastroenterologist for a specialized evaluation of these symptoms. It is best not to ignore these symptoms, so you can avoid more serious complications.”
When gallstones get stuck, they can cause a gallbladder attack and/or pancreatitis, which is an inflammation of the pancreas (an organ which aids in digestion and blood sugar control). Sometimes these gallstones get stuck in the biliary tree and cause infection to brew in the bile ducts, leading to bacterial sepsis (widespread infection throughout the body’s circulation bloodstream). Symptoms of a gallbladder attack, infection of the biliary tree, and/or pancreatitis may include:
- Pain in the upper part of your belly that can travel to your back or shoulder.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Yellowing of your skin (jaundice).
- Dark urine.
- Fever and chills
- Mental confusion
If you have gallstones, you might have more pain after eating high-fat foods. That’s because fatty foods stimulate your gallbladder to release bile, which aggravates the gallstones.
Who Is Most At-Risk for Gallbladder Problems?
Gallbladder issues, and especially gallstones, are more likely to happen to:
- Adults over 40 years old.
- People who are overweight or who have lost a lot of weight quickly.
- Those who eat a diet high in fat and cholesterol and low in fiber.
Foods to Avoid with Gallbladder Issues
Your diet can’t cure gallbladder issues or get rid of the gallstones already there. But eating a healthy diet is one of the best ways to keep your gallbladder healthy and to prevent gallstones from forming. If you’re at risk for developing gallstones, try to avoid or limit these foods:
- High-fat dairy foods like cream, whole milk, cheese, and ice cream.
- Red meats like steak or hamburgers.
- Other fatty meats like sausages, hot dogs, and cold cuts like salami, bologna, or pepperoni.
- Greasy or fried foods like french fries or chicken strips.
- Processed snack foods like chips, cookies, or donuts which are higher in saturated fats.
- Foods prepared in butter, lard, or cream.
- Replace them with these lower fat, higher fiber foods:
- Skim or 1% milk or yogurt.
- Lean meats like skinless poultry, pork tenderloin, or fish.
- Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables.
- Whole grains like oats, barley, brown rice, or quinoa.
- Beans (legumes).
- Small amounts of healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, or peanut butter.
- Sautee foods instead of frying them, and use olive oil, avocado oil, or grapeseed oil in small amounts.
Eating a healthier diet can help to ease your symptoms. It also makes it easier to maintain a healthy weight, reducing your risk of developing gallstones.
Avoiding quick weight loss also helps prevent gallstones. When you eat very little, your liver releases more cholesterol into your bile. This means stones form more easily.
Also, with rapid weight loss, your gallbladder may not empty properly.
If You Don’t Have a Gallbladder
If you have severe or frequent gallbladder attacks, you may need surgery to remove your gallbladder. Even though your gallbladder is one of your digestive organs, you can live safely without it. Your liver can still make and release bile to help you to digest fats.
After gallbladder surgery, you’ll gradually increase your diet from liquids to foods that are low in fat and cholesterol. For the first few weeks after surgery, it’s also best to avoid:
- Very spicy foods.
- Gas-producing foods like beans or broccoli or carbonated beverages.
- Sugary foods like pie, cake, or other desserts.
You can resume your regular diet (but with less fat and cholesterol) within about four weeks after surgery. You might experience some changes in your digestion without a gallbladder.
If your gallbladder has been surgically removed, it is not uncommon to have digestive problems like diarrhea after eating a fatty meal like pizza, hamburgers, and fries. Sticking to lower fat foods and eating more high-fiber fruits, vegetables, and whole grains can help you feel better. Eating smaller meals with snacks between meals can also improve digestion.
After a gallbladder removal, your health care provider might recommend digestive enzymes to help you break down fatty foods. It’s also helpful to work with a registered dietitian. They can help you to plan balanced, low-fat meals that support healthy digestion.
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