Does dieting increase the risk for developing gallstones?

If you are considering a diet program that requires a low intake of calories, you should be aware that during periods of rapid or substantial weight loss your risk of developing gallstones increases. However, being overweight also puts you at risk for gallbladder disease. Obesity remains one of the strongest risk factors for gallstones.

Gallstones are clumps of solid material, mostly cholesterol, that form in the gallbladder, a small pear-shaped organ located under the liver in the abdomen. The gallbladder contracts and releases bile, a fluid made in the liver that aids in digestion. Bile contains substances called bile salts that help break down fats in the food we eat. Bile also helps eliminate cholesterol from the body via the digestive system.

Researchers believe that dieting causes an imbalance of bile salts and cholesterol in the gallbladder. The level of bile salts decreases, while cholesterol levels increase. Additionally, going for long periods without eating, as dieters often do, decreases gallbladder contraction, resulting in the formation of gallstones as the bile is not able to be released.

Cycles of dieting and weight gain increase one’s risk of painful gallstones and gallbladder surgery, reports a recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Of the 47,000 female nurses involved in the study, those who had at least one weight swing of 10 to 19 pounds had a 31% greater likelihood of undergoing removal of their gall bladder than women whose weight had remained stable. Those who had experienced at least one 20 pound or greater weight swing had a 68% greater likelihood of needing the operation. Obesity remains one of the strongest risk factors for gallstones.

Why do some people develop gallstones while others don’t? According to Italian researchers, one reason might be the amount of refined sugar they eat. According to Tufts University, a preliminary study conducted in southern Italy found that people who ate 400 calories or more of refined sugar each day were three times more likely to suffer from gallstones as those who ate no more than 260 calories of the sweet stuff a day. Those who consumed at least 600 calories from sugar were six times more likely to develop gallstones.

Refined sugars are contained in foods such as cakes, cookies, soft drinks, and table sugar. Thirty-two ounces of cola contain 400 calories from sugar, the equivalent of 12.5 teaspoons of sugar.

This same study also confirmed the relationship between excess weight and gallstone risk reported by other researchers, and it reported that both saturated fat and total caloric intake were linked to the tendency to develop gallstones.

Although it is too soon to say whether excessive amounts of sugar actually cause gallstone formation, keeping your sugar intake under control is certainly a good idea. And this study provides one more good reason to keep your weight and intake of saturated fats in line as well.