If you're experiencing gallbladder pain from gallstones, dietary changes may lower your risk of future gallbladder attacks. You should seek help from your doctor, but limiting saturated fats and refined carbs in favor of fiber-rich foods and protein with plenty of omega-3s is a good place to start.
You may be able to reduce your risk of developing gallstones by upping your fiber intake and cutting down on high-fat foods and super-sugary treats.
What Causes Gallbladder Pain?
The gallbladder is a small, pear-shaped organ that contains a digestive fluid called bile. The gallbladder releases bile into the small intestine to help your body break down fats during the digestive process.
More than 25 million people in the U.S. have gallstones — hard deposits in the gallbladder made up of cholesterol or a pigment called bilirubin. Groups at an increased risk of developing gallstones include women, anyone over 40, people with diabetes, those who eat a high-fat or high-cholesterol diet and people with obesity, a family history of gallstones or a history of rapid weight loss.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, gallstones can range in size from a grain of sand to a golf ball or larger. The majority of people with the condition experience "silent gallstones," meaning they have no symptoms and don't even realize they have gallstones.
However, some people with gallstones will experience gallbladder attacks. These are episodes of pain lasting from a few minutes to several hours. Gallbladder pain can be located in the abdomen, between your shoulder blades or underneath your right shoulder.
The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) says that gallbladder attacks typically happen after heavy meals, when gallstones move and block a bile duct. And once you've experienced one gallbladder attack, you're likely to experience more in the future.
Read more: Foods to Avoid When You Have Gallstones
Gallbladder Diet Ideas
NIDDK explains that altering your diet can lower your risk of developing gallstones. There's isn't a one-size-fits-all gallbladder diet, but the site recommends eating more fiber, limiting refined carbs and cutting down on saturated fats in favor of healthy fats like omega-3s. If you commonly have gallbladder pain, try keeping a food diary to see if there's a connection between what you eat and your gallbladder attacks.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics suggests that 20 to 35 percent of your daily calories should come from healthy fats like polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. Saturated fats, which are associated with high cholesterol and risks for cardiovascular disease, should make up less than 10 percent of your daily calories.
Foods rich in saturated fats that you may want to limit include butter, cheese, beef, fatty lamb, pork, poultry with the skin still on, cream, lard, beef fat and products made with whole milk. Instead, try foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, sardines, anchovies and oysters, as well as monounsaturated fats found in olive oil, nut butters and avocado.
You can boost your fiber intake by taking supplemental dietary fiber or by loading up on fiber-rich foods. Excellent sources of fiber include pears, popcorn, beans, nuts, whole grains, apples, raspberries, green peas, broccoli and raw carrots.
Read more: 19 High-Fiber Foods — Some May Surprise You!
Vegetarianism and Gallbladder Diets
Research is mixed on the links between a vegetarian diet and gallbladder disease. For a study published in the journal Nutrients in February 2019 researchers followed 4,839 adults with no history of gallbladder disease. During the course of the study, 22 vegetarians and 82 nonvegetarians developed symptomatic gallstone disease. Researchers concluded that eating a vegetarian diet lowered the risk of developing gallstone disease in women — but not in men.
A second study, published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in March 2017, had different findings. Researchers analyzed data from 49,652 adults enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC)-Oxford study, roughly one-third of whom were vegetarians.
They found a significant link between an increasing body mass index (BMI) and the risk of developing symptomatic gallstones. However, once the data was adjusted for BMI and other risk factors, vegetarians actually had a slightly increased risk of developing gallstones when compared to nonvegetarians. The researchers posited that this might be due to increased consumption of starches, but couldn't conclude this for certain.
Because the bottom line on the link between vegetarianism and gallbladder attacks is unclear, ask your doctor to recommend a diet for you. In some cases, sticking to lean meats and poultry without the skin may help stave off gallbladder pain.
Read more: Side Effects of Gallstones
Gallbladder Attacks and Weight Loss
One tricky thing: Even though gallstones are associated with obesity, losing weight too quickly can also increase your risk of gallbladder attacks. That's because rapid weight loss causes your liver to release extra cholesterol into the bile. Fast weight loss can also interfere with your gallbladder emptying properly.
This means that certain weight-loss techniques, like bariatric surgery and crash dieting, may increase your risk of gallbladder pain. If you're hoping to lose weight, but want to avoid gallbladder attacks, stick with a safe, steady weight-loss plan.
According to the Mayo Clinic, losing 1 to 2 pounds per week is safe for most people. The best way to lose weight is through achieving a calorie deficit, meaning you burn more calories than you consume. You can do this by limiting what you eat, increasing your activity levels or a combination of the two. Counting calories for a while will give you a good idea of how much you're eating and where you can cut back or make healthy swaps.
The clinic explains that one pound of fat contains roughly 3,500 calories, meaning that a calorie deficit of 500 calories per day will lead to losing one pound a week. That said, the correct calorie intake and deficit amount will vary depending on your size, height, age and activity level. People who are extremely active need more calories than people living a sedentary lifestyle.
- Cleveland Clinic: "Gallstones"
- Harvard Health: "What to Do About Gallstones"
- The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Symptoms & Causes of Gallstones"
- Nutrients: "Plant-Based Diet, Cholesterol, and Risk of Gallstone Disease: A Prospective Study"
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Vegetarian Diet as a Risk Factor for Symptomatic Gallstone Disease"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Choose Healthy Fats"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: "Dieting and Gallstones"
- Mayo Clinic: "Why Do Doctors Recommend a Slow Rate of Weight Loss? What’s Wrong With Fast Weight Loss?"