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Dietary fat impacts gallstones

Tammy Roberts, MS, RD, LD, Nutrition and Health Education Specialist, Bates County, University of Missouri Extension


For those who have experienced the pain of a “gallbladder attack,” there is interest in knowing just what caused it and what can be done to prevent it from happening again. Gallstones are often the reason for the pain caused by the attack and dietary fat is likely a contributing factor.


The gallbladder is a small organ that lies just under the liver. Its job is to store and concentrate bile that is produced by the liver. Bile is used in the body to aid in the digestion of fats and remove waste products.


The majority of gallstones are formed from cholesterol. Cholesterol is transported in clusters of bile salts. When there is an imbalance of these two substances, cholesterol crystals form and these crystals can turn to gallstones. Most gallstones are small and can pass through the body without producing any symptoms.


People more at risk for developing gallstones are those with a family history of gallstones and people who have diabetes, metabolic syndrome or obesity. If you are overweight and want to lose weight to decrease your risk for gallstones, do it slowly. People who lose weight rapidly are at increased risk for developing gallstones. People who lose and then re-gain weight of at least 20 pounds are also at increased risk for developing gallstones. More women than men develop gallstones. This is because women produce the hormone estrogen. Estrogen stimulates the liver to take cholesterol from the blood and into the bile.


What can you do? You can decrease the amount of saturated fat in your diet and replace it with monounsaturated fat. The average American needs no more than 67 grams of fat per day and no more than 22 grams should be saturated fat. (It’s perfectly fine if you consume 0 grams of saturated fat.) Saturated fat is the type of fat found in animal products such as meat and butter. Food labels list how much saturated fat per serving a product contains. Monounsaturated fats are often referred to as healthy fats. Examples of monounsaturated fat include canola oil and olive oil. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish such as mackerel and salmon, walnuts and flaxseed may also provide positive benefits. High fiber diets have been associated with a lower risk for gallstones.


Choosing monounsaturated fat instead of saturated fat is a good choice for everyone. For the person at risk for gallstones, it may delay or decrease the chances of developing them.


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Last update: Monday, September 30, 2013