The gallbladder is a small-but-mighty organ that helps you digest fats. Unfortunately, it can sometimes cause trouble in the form of gallbladder attacks.
While gallbladder attacks are often caused by genetic predisposition and underlying illness, certain foods can also affect your chances of having an attack.
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That said, are your beloved snacks (like popcorn) among those problematic foods? Find out whether popcorn or other corn products, such as tortilla chips, are bad for your gallbladder, along with other foods that could cause gallbladder attacks.
First, What Is a Gallbladder Attack?
The gallbladder is a pear-shaped organ located near the liver. It's essentially a storage center for bile — a fluid that helps digest fats, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Occasionally, this bile forms stones (aka, gallstones), which can block the bile from leaving the gallbladder. When this blockage occurs, it's referred to as a gallbladder attack, per the NIH.
Symptoms of a gallbladder attack include acute pain accompanied by other symptoms like nausea, bloating and gas, especially after eating. You may even experience fever, chills and vomiting along with yellowing of the skin and whites of the eyes (jaundice).
This attack can last several hours, or until you pass the gallstones, per Johns Hopkins Medicine. If you have any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor.
What Does the Pain of a Gallbladder Attack Feel Like?
The pain of a gallbladder attack can be severe, like being cut by a knife, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. It often occurs as a sharp pain beneath the right rib cage, but sometimes the pain radiates to the right shoulder and through the back.
Can Popcorn Cause a Gallbladder Attack?
It isn't really popcorn itself that can cause a gallbladder attack, but more so its common toppings that can potentially cause gallbladder issues.
If you're not allergic to corn, popcorn itself can actually be a nutritious, whole-grain choice even when you have gallbladder issues. This is because popcorn is high in fiber (with about 3.5 grams per 3-cup serving, per the USDA), which is a key component to a diet for a healthy gallbladder, per an April 2023 study in BMC Gastroenterology.
It's what you put on the popcorn that can add cholesterol and trans fats to your diet, therefore exasperating gallbladder issues. Adding butter, cheese and other high-fat toppings to popcorn (like with movie theater popcorn) increases your chances of an attack, as these toppings can raise your cholesterol levels, per the Mayo Clinic.
So eating air-popped popcorn, along with eating other low-cholesterol foods, can help reduce the chance of gallstones and thereby the number of gallbladder attacks you get.
Can You Eat Popcorn Without a Gallbladder?
Right after gallbladder removal, you'll want to take it slow when adding high-fiber foods like popcorn back into your diet, according to the Cleveland Clinic, to avoid potential side effects like diarrhea, cramping and bloating.
You'll also want to watch your fat intake, including butter and oils, which are often added to popcorn, because it may be more difficult for your body to break down fatty foods.
Stick to small portions at first, and keep a journal to note any side effects from specific foods, such as popcorn, so you can adjust your diet accordingly.
If you are unsure about what you can and can't eat after gallbladder removal surgery, consult your doctor, who can help you come up with a diet plan. They can also refer you to a dietitian with experience working with clients who've had gallbladder surgery.
The Main Causes of Gallbladder Attacks
While it's not exactly clear why gallstones and gallbladder attacks happen, there are a few theories doctors have as to why gallstones form and lead to a gallbladder attack, including the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Too much cholesterol in your bile: If your liver excretes more cholesterol than your bile can dissolve, it may form into crystals and eventually stones.
- Too much bilirubin in your bile: When your body breaks down red blood cells, you create bilirubin. Certain conditions can cause you to create too much bilirubin, including cirrhosis, infections and certain blood disorders.
- Your gallbladder is not emptying correctly: This can cause bile to become concentrated and form gallstones.
What you eat has the potential to trigger a gallbladder attack, too. Any food high in cholesterol (like red meat, fried foods and oils) and low in fiber (like refined grains) can increase your risk of gallstones and thereby, a gallbladder attack, per the Mayo Clinic.
How Do Food Allergies Contribute to Gallbladder Attacks?
There has been some medical documentation theorizing a connection between food allergens and gallbladder issues. Mount Sinai even makes mention of eliminating certain food allergens from your diet (like corn, dairy, soy, etc.) to see if they're contributing to your gallbladder issues. However, there is no solid evidence that foods allergies cause or contribute to gallbladder attacks.
When you're allergic to a certain food, your body will release a stream of the hormone histamine, to help fight off what your body sees as a threat. Your immune system plays a major role in this allergic reaction to a food or substance, per the Cleveland Clinic.
There are some theories that histamine has a negative effect on bile and causes excess fluid to back up your bile ducts. But there is not enough solid research and evidence to support these theories. More studies need to be done to determine the connection between histamine, food allergies and gallbladder issues.
Other Foods That Can Cause Gallbladder Attacks
Foods that can possibly trigger a gallbladder attack and contribute to gallbladder disease include the following, per the National Health Service:
- Fried foods (fried meat, fried eggs, fried fish)
- Tinned fish in oil (like sardines)
- Fatty processed meats (sausages, burger patties, salami and bacon)
- Whole milk and full-fat dairy products
- Chips and other high-fat snack foods
- Refined carbohydrates (pizza, pastries, pasta, sugary desserts)
What About Salicylates and Gallbladder Attacks?
Fresh or canned sweet corn, cornmeal, popcorn, corn flour and flour made from whole-grain corn or maize all contain an ingredient called salicylates — chemicals naturally present in many fruits and vegetables, per a March 2021 study in Nutrients.
Some people are sensitive to salicylates in food and will experience a reaction after eating just a small amount, including diarrhea, skin rashes and swelling, per the National Health Service. Stomach pain is also often a symptom of salicylate sensitivity, which can be confused with the pain of a gallbladder attack.
There is no known evidence, however, to suggest that salicylate consumption causes gallbladder attacks. The two issues may just get confused as their symptoms are similar.
Who's at Risk for Gallbladder Issues?
Apart from gallbladder attacks, you can also have gallbladder disease or a predisposition to gallstone formation. Some factors that put you at higher risk include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Gaining weight
- Eating foods high in fat, sugar and cholesterol
- Being assigned female at birth (AFAB)
- Being over age 40
- Having a family history of gallstones
- Being pregnant
- Having diabetes
- Having blood disorders (like sickle cell anemia)
- Having liver disease
- Being on hormone replacement therapy
- Having coronary artery disease (a risk factor for gallbladder disease, too)
How to Prevent Gallbladder Attacks
There are many different ways to decrease the frequency and severity of gallbladder attacks, including the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Maintaining an appropriate weight for your body
- Losing weight slowly if you need to
- Eating high-fiber foods
- Avoiding skipping meals
High-fat foods such as fried chicken, onion rings, french fries and foods with a lot of butter can trigger a gallbladder attack. To avoid an attack, you should aim for foods that are high in fiber such as grains, nuts and vegetables, per the Mayo Clinic.
Because popcorn is high in fiber, it is a great choice for people managing gallbladder issues. It's when you add butter and other high-fat products to popcorn (and any food, for that matter) that it increases your chances of having a gallbladder attack.
Choosing low-fat popcorn toppings and eating other low-cholesterol, high-fiber foods may help you prevent gallbladder attacks.
- Penn State: Gallstones
- MedLine Plus: Gallbladder Disease
- Penn Medicine: Gallbladder Disease
- Orville Redenbacher's: Our Popcorn
- Mayo Clinic: "Gallstones"
- NIH: "Galled by the Gallstones"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "What Causes a Gallbladder Attack?"
- Mount Sinai: "Gallbladder Disease"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Histamine"
- BMC Gastroenterology: "Dietary fiber intake and risk of gallstone: a case–control study"
- Nutrients: "Effectiveness of Personalized Low Salicylate Diet in the Management of Salicylates Hypersensitive Patients: Interventional Study"
- National Health Service: "Salicylates: What are they and how can I reduce their effect on my child?"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Gallstones"
- USDA: "Popcorn: A Healthy, Whole Grain Snack"
- NHS: "Dietary advice for Gallbladder Disease"
- Cleveland Clinic: "What to Eat After You Have Your Gallbladder Removed"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.