Getting your gallbladder removed involves a major surgery that has dramatic implications for your diet and digestion. The main purpose of your gallbladder is to store and concentrate bile, which your body uses to digest fat. Eating saturated fat, which is found mostly in animal products, is not recommended immediately after surgery and it should be minimized in your diet thereafter.
Your gallbladder is a little bigger than a golf ball and attached to your liver, which is where bile salts are produced. The gallbladder receives the bile from the liver, concentrates it, then injects it into the small intestine when you eat food that contains any type of fat, either saturated or unsaturated. The purpose of bile is to breakdown fat into smaller compounds called fatty acids, which are absorbed into your bloodstream and transported around your body for various uses. Calcified gallstones can build up in the gallbladder and lead to inflammation, pain and dysfunction. If gallstones completely block the duct that delivers bile into the small intestine, a medical emergency can develop, which often results in surgical removal called cholecystectomy.
Saturated fat comes primarily from animal sources such as meats, fish, dairy products and eggs, but is also found in a few vegetable products such as coconut oil, cottonseed and cashews. Saturated fat is often portrayed as a “bad guy” by health professionals because, when eaten in excess, it leads high blood cholesterol, which is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular diseases and some forms of cancer. However, cholesterol and fatty acids are needed to make cell membranes and steroidal sex hormones, and fats can be used as an energy source if your carbohydrate consumption is too low. The key is dietary moderation, although fat metabolism is severely compromised without a gallbladder.
Without a gallbladder, fats pass through your intestines largely undigested, which may sound great if you’re hoping to lose a few pounds, but your body needs some fatty acids and cholesterol, and too much fat in your large intestine causes side effects. For example, about 20 percent of people who have their gallbladders removed suffer from chronic diarrhea and abdominal cramps, even if they avoid high-fat foods. Furthermore, excessive fat in the stool, called steatorrhea, is especially foul-smelling and unpleasant. A dietary deficiency of fatty acids and cholesterol has wide-ranging health impacts, which include hormonal imbalance, mood disturbance, brain dysfunction, poor nerve conductance and problems with nutrient and waste exchange in tissues.
Some dietary modifications are needed if you don't have a gallbladder. A low-fat diet is helpful to prevent intestinal symptoms, but complete avoidance is not only very difficult, it’s also not healthy. Instead, choose lean meats and low-fat dairy products. Fish contains some saturated fat, but it’s also high in polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids that are much healthier and easier to digest. Use plant-based monounsaturated fat products such as olive and canola oils instead of lard or butter. Avoid fried foods and processed sauces. Increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet. In general, your saturated fat intake should make up no more than 7 percent of your daily calories, which equates to approximately 15 grams a day. To help metabolize fats, bile supplements are available, although you should consult your doctor for advice on this before using them.
- Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine; A. Fauci et al.
- Advanced Nutrition and Human Metabolism; James L. Groff et al.
- Textbook of Functional Medicine; David S. Jones
- Human Metabolism: Functional Diversity and Integration; J. Ramsey Bronk
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.