There's no set gallstone diet, but dietary changes can decrease the chances of gallstones developing. Plus, tweaking your diet can lessen the likelihood that you'll experience a painful gallstone attack if you already have asymptomatic gallstones.
There’s no one-size-fits all gallstone diet, but foods to avoid with gallstones include high-fat dishes, fried foods and sugary desserts.
What Are Gallstones?
Gallstones are hard deposits that form in your gallbladder, which is a small, pear-shaped organ filled with a digestive fluid called bile. There are two types of gallstones, formed when the waste products in bile clump together into solid lumps: cholesterol gallstones and pigment gallstones.
Cholesterol gallstones are the more common type of gallstone, and they appear yellow in color. They contain mostly undissolved cholesterol. Pigment gallstones, which are blue or blackish, form when there's too much bilirubin in your bile (bilirubin is a byproduct of red blood-cell breakdown).
The Mayo Clinic says that gallstones range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball and that you can have one gallstone or multiple gallstones at once. Around 10 to 15 percent of Americans will develop gallstones at some point, but 80 percent will never feel any symptoms. Others will experience symptoms when the stones get bigger or block bile ducts.
The symptoms of a gallbladder attack can last anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours and include:
- Steady upper abdominal pain that quickly gets worse
- Back pain between your shoulder blades
- Right shoulder pain
Read more: Side Effects of Gallstones
Foods to Avoid With Gallstones
According to Penn State's Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, a diet heavy in cholesterol, saturated fats and sugar is linked to gallstones. However, diet isn't the only thing that determines gallstone formation. Other risk factors include: Being over age 40, being female, having a family history of gallstones, being diabetic, taking medications that contain estrogen (like birth control pills or hormone therapy drugs), living a sedentary lifestyle and being pregnant.
Cut down on refined carbs. Refined carbs have been processed to remove nutrients and fiber, so your body digests them faster. This causes a spike in your blood sugar levels. Diets high in refined carbs have been linked to gallstones, and refined carbohydrates may also play a role in inflammatory diseases. Chronic inflammation has been linked to arthritis, cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes and depression.
Eat less sugar. A diet high in added sugar can increase your risk of developing gallstones. Try to cut down on sugar by giving up soda, limiting sweet treats and carefully studying nutrition labels on store-bought products to identify added sugars. Sugar can be disguised under other names, including brown rice syrup, corn syrup and molasses. Because sugar is also linked to cancer, heart disease and diabetes, consuming less sugar can improve your health in the long run.
Limit fatty foods. Gallstones are linked to high-fat diets, specifically intake of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends healthy fats, like the omega-3s found in fatty fish, walnuts and ground flaxseed. Other sources of monounsaturated fats, which can improve your cholesterol levels, are nuts, oils, peanut butter and avocado.
Gallstones and Weight Loss
So, experts say that reducing your calorie intake and focusing on nutritious foods will make it less likely that you'll develop gallstones. But at the same time, losing a lot of weight too fast is linked to developing gallstones. Rapid weight loss increases the amount of cholesterol your liver produces and can also prevent your gallbladder from emptying properly. As a result, people who have undergone weight-loss surgery or lost weight on a dangerous crash diet are at higher risk for gallstones.
You can mitigate this risk by pacing any planned weight loss. The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends kick-starting a weight-loss plan by losing 5 to 10 percent of your body weight over a six-month period. Safe, steady weight loss through counting calories and starting an exercise routine will set you up for long-term success — without nasty side effects.
Read more: Foods to Relieve Gallbladder Attacks
Recommended Gallstone Diet
Certain dietary changes can decrease your chances of developing gallstones. A December 2018 study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology examined the diets of 43,635 American male health care professionals. They found that diets rich in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes and low in red meat were inversely associated with symptomatic gallstones.
Plus, a February 2019 study published in the journal Nutrients found that eating a vegetarian diet decreased the gallstone risk in women. So, research suggests that decreasing your red meat intake in favor of fresh fruits and veggies can decrease your chances of getting gallstones.
To prevent gallstones, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases recommends eating plenty of fiber-rich foods, healthy fats like olive oil and fish oil and whole grains like brown rice or whole-wheat bread.
Gallbladder Diet After Removal
Some people may need to have their gallbladder removed due to complications from gallstones. Gallbladder removal surgery — also called a cholecystectomy — can be done via a laparoscopic procedure or using an open method.
According to the Mayo Clinic, people commonly experience diarrhea for a few weeks after their gallbladder removal surgery. There are two reasons why. First, bile is no longer concentrated in the gallbladder before moving through the intestines. Instead, it drains into your intestines, sometimes having a laxative effect. Second, it's more difficult for you to digest large amounts of fat, so a fatty meal can cause bloating and diarrhea.
Experts say you should avoid fatty foods and fried foods for at least a week after your surgery. Stick with meals containing less than 3 grams of fat. You can also increase your fiber intake and eat smaller, more frequent meals to aid digestion and prevent diarrhea.
- Mayo Clinic: "Gallstones"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Gallstones"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Can What I Eat Help Prevent Gallstones?"
- Cedars-Sinai: "Gallstones"
- Gut and Liver: "Epidemiology of Gallbladder Disease: Cholelithiasis and Cancer"
- Nutrients: "Plant-Based Diet, Cholesterol, and Risk of Gallstone Disease"
- International Journal of Epidemiology: "Diet-Quality Scores and the Risk of Symptomatic Gallstone Disease"
- Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics: "A Nested Case–Control Study on Dietary Fat Consumption and the Risk for Gallstone Disease"
- Penn State Hershey: Milton S. Hershey Medical Center: "Gallstones and Gallbladder Disease"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "How to Break the Sugar Habit and Help Your Health in the Process"
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Dieting & Gallstones"
- Mayo Clinic: "Bilirubin Test"
- Practitioner: "Diagnosis and Treatment of Gallstone Disease"
- Inflammatory Bowel Diseases: "Combinatorial Effects of Diet and Genetics on Inflammatory Bowel Disease Pathogenesis"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Choose Healthy Fats"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Foods That Fight Inflammation"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cholecystectomy"
- Mayo Clinic: "I Recently Had My Gallbladder Out and I Keep Having Diarrhea. Is There a Gallbladder Removal Diet I Should Follow?"