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Gallstones: Nutritional Considerations

Researchers have looked for links between dietary habits and gallstone risk.
The following nutritional factors are associated with reduced risk of gallstones in population studies:

  • A plant–based diet: Gallstones can largely be avoided by following a high–fiber diet, particularly a vegetarian diet. Stones are uncommon in Asian and African populations who follow traditional, largely plant–based, diets. Conversely, gallstones are common among individuals following Westernized diets that are high in fat and low in fiber.

    Both animal fat and animal protein may contribute to the formation of gallstones. Because most gallstones are composed of cholesterol, reducing dietary cholesterol and saturated fat (which causes the body to produce the “bad” LDL cholesterol) may prevent gallstone formation. Plant–based foods have no cholesterol, and most have very little saturated fat.

    Not surprisingly, studies have shown that vegetarian women were found to have a much lower risk for gallstones, compared with nonvegetarian women. And nonvegetarian women who ate the most vegetables had a 20 to 30 percent lower risk.
  • Avoiding trans fatty acids: Consumer should be wary of packaged and fried foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Replacing sugars and refined starches with high–fiber carbohydrates: People who consume the most refined carbohydrates had a 60 percent greater risk for developing gallstones. Conversely, individuals who eat the most fiber (particularly insoluble fiber) have a 15 percent lower risk for gallstones. 
  • A healthy weight and an active lifestyle: Overweight men and women have at least double the risk for gallstone disease, compared with people of normal weight.

    Weight cycling (repeatedly losing and regaining weight) also increases the likelihood of gallstones. In one study, the risk increased from 20 percent in “light” cyclers (those who lost and regained 5 to 9 lbs.) to 70 percent in “severe” cyclers (those who lost and regained more than 20 lbs.).

    Some evidence suggests that physical activity may reduce gallstone risk. In young or middle–aged men (65 years or younger), those who were the most physically active had half the risk for developing gallstones, compared with those who were least active. The Health Professional’s Follow–up Study at the Harvard School of Public Health suggested that one–third of cases of gallstones could be prevented by 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise.
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