Your gallbladder, the plum-sized organ tucked next to your liver, is responsible for digesting fatty foods. When the gallbladder is inflamed and clogged with stones, a fatty meal can make it growl with nauseating pain and sometimes warrant a trip to the hospital. Certain foods can soothe the gallbladder and reduce the risk of attacks, while others can help prevent gallstone formation.
Your gallbladder’s main role is to collect bile from your liver, concentrate it and then release it into your small intestine in response to fatty meals or snacks. Bile contains salt and emulsifiers that metabolize saturated and unsaturated fat into smaller fatty acids. Gallstones form in the gallbladder due mainly to dietary or hormonal imbalances, but also from liver and gallbladder disease. When stones get caught in the bile ducts leading to the intestine, this prevents the release of bile and triggers inflammation and diffuse pain. Stabbing and/or burning upper abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and belching are common symptoms of a gallbladder attack. Doctors associate the “4 Fs” with a higher risk of gallbladder problems: female, close to 40 years of age, fertile and fat.
Since eating fatty food triggers the gallbladder to contract and secrete bile, it’s a good idea to eat low-fat food in order to prevent irritation. Some fat is essential for health because your body needs it to make cell walls and steroidal sex hormones, but most Americans can afford to cut back, especially to avoid a debilitating gallbladder attack. Switch to low-fat milk and dairy, trim fat and skin off your meats and poultry, avoid creamy sauces and heavily processed foods and cook with less butter or lard. Stalk up on lots of fresh fruit and vegetables as they are mostly soothing to an inflamed gallbladder, with the exception of cabbage, cauliflower and onions. Eating smaller portions and taking supplemental enzymes are also helpful. Fatty foods well-known to provoke gallbladder attacks include eggs, aged cheese, milk chocolate, nuts, cured meat such as pepperoni and almost anything fried.
Food high in fiber is also helpful for not further irritating an inflamed gallbladder and possibly even soothing one. Dietary fiber tends to bind to fat, which may help to reduce the stimulation and contraction of the gallbladder. Furthermore, soluble fiber attaches to cholesterol in the intestines and drags it out of the body, which may help reduce the risk of gallstone formation. Gallbladder-friendly examples of high-fiber, low-fat foods include carrots, beets, cucumber, oat bran, brown rice, peas, lentils, baked potatoes with the skin, dried figs, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples, plums and bananas.
Citrus fruits such as lemons, limes, grapefruits and oranges have a cleansing affect on the liver and gallbladder and help to reduce the risk of gallstone formation in addition to contributing to dissolution of the stones. For prevention and possible treatment, fruit high in citric acid and vitamin C is certainly helpful. Furthermore, citrus fruit is essentially fat-free and high in fiber. On the other hand, these fruits, especially grapefruit, can stimulate the gallbladder if it’s clogged with too many stones and increase symptoms. In a sense, having a problematic gallbladder and eating citrus fruit is a risky, but high-reward venture. Consult your doctor is you have chronic gallbladder problems.
- Textbook of Functional Medicine; David S. Jones
- Contemporary Nutrition: Functional Approach; Gordon M. Wardlaw et al.
- Human Metabolism: Functional Diversity and Integration; J. Ramsey Bronk
- Human Biochemistry; Charles Dreiling
Sirah Dubois is currently a PhD student in food science after having completed her master's degree in nutrition at the University of Alberta. She has worked in private practice as a dietitian in Edmonton, Canada and her nutrition-related articles have appeared in The Edmonton Journal newspaper.