Crash Dieting Can Cause Gallstone Problems

When my daughter told me that she had to visit a sixteen-year- old friend in the hospital who was suffering from gallstones, I wasnít surprised. I myself have four female friends who have had their gallbladders removed because of gallstone problems.

According to the U.S. National Institute of Health (NIH), women between 20 and 60 years old are twice as likely to develop gallstones as men. This may have something to do with simply being female because pregnant women, women who are on birth control pills or estrogen replacement therapy are also more prone to having gallstones.

But another reason could also be that many women are always trying to lose weight. It has been discovered that crash dieting or losing a lot of weight quickly can put you at a higher risk for gallstones.

One of my friends who had gallstones told me that her doctor mentioned that he was seeing a lot of cases of gallstones in young women because of crash dieting. My friend had been following a very low fat diet for several years before her gallstone incident. My other three friends had been doing all sorts of crash diets on-and-off for a couple of years.

How gallstones are formed
Hereís a primer from the NIH: Gallstones are formed in the gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ at the bottom of the liver that stores and releases bile into the intestines to help digestion. Bile is a liquid made by the liver. It contains water, cholesterol, bile salts, fats, proteins and bilirubin, a bile pigment. During digestion, the gallbladder contracts to release bile into the intestine where the bile salts help to break down fats. Bile also dissolves excess cholesterol.

According to researchers, gallstones are formed in three ways: When bile contains more cholesterol than it can dissolve, when there is too much of certain proteins or other substances in the bile that causes the cholesterol to form hard crystals, or when the gallbladder doesnít contract and empty its bile regularly.

Most gallstones remain silent, meaning they are there but you donít even know it because they arenít causing you any pain. Sometimes, however, the stones donít stay put and travel into the cystic duct that connects the gallbladder to the small intestine. If they get stuck there and block the flow of bile, this can cause cholecystitis, or an inflammation of the gallbladder.

The stones can also get stuck in the bile ducts between the liver and the intestine and cause pain and jaundice. Pancreatitis or inflammation of the pancreas can also occur if the stones obstruct the flow of digestive juices secreted by the pancreas into the small intestine.

Prolonged blockage in any of these ducts can cause severe damage to the gallbladder, liver, or pancreas, which can be fatal. So itís important to watch out for warning signs of gallstone problems: Severe pain in the upper abdomen that starts suddenly and last from 30 minutes to many hours, pain under the right shoulder or in the right shoulder blade, nausea or vomiting, indigestion after eating high-fat foods, such as fried food or desserts.

Why crash dieting can cause gallstones
People who lose more than three pounds a week have a greater chance of getting gallstones compared to people who lose weight more slowly. People who diet by consuming only 800 calories or less are also more prone to gallstones than people who lose weight by reducing caloric intake moderately.

Experts believe that dieting may cause a shift in the balance of bile salts and cholesterol in the gallbladder. The cholesterol level is increased and the amount of bile salts is decreased. Following a diet that is too low in fat or going for long periods without eating (like fasting or not eating breakfast) may decrease gallbladder contractions. If the gallbladder doesnít contract often enough to empty out the bile, gallstones may form.

Weight cycling also increases risk
Losing or and regaining weight repeatedly is called weight cycling. This is common with people who crash diet because they donít learn good eating and exercise habits to maintain their weight loss. People who lose and gain more than ten pounds repeatedly have a higher risk for gallstones than people who lose their weight sensibly and keep it off for good. Researchers are still not sure why weight cycling can cause gallstones.

Obesity is a risk factor
Being obese also increases oneís risk for getting gallstones. In fact, a large clinical study indicated that being even moderately overweight can increase oneís risk.. The more obese a person is, the higher the risk. For example, women who have a body mass index (a body weight method that compares your weight to your height) or BMI of 32 have triple the risk compared to women with a BMI of 24 to 25. A healthy BMI is between 18 and 25, overweight is 25 to 30, and obese is 30 or higher.

Researchers found that people who are obese may produce high levels of cholesterol. This can lead to the production of bile containing more cholesterol than it can dissolve. When this happens, gallstones can form. People who are obese may also have large gallbladders that do not empty normally or completely. Some studies have shown that men and women who carry fat around their midsections may be at greater risk for developing gallstones than those who carry fat around their hips.

Too little or too much fat bad for you
Too little fat in your diet can lead to gallstone formation but so can too much fat. Italian researchers found that diets high in saturated fat and refined sugar and low in fiber can contribute to gallstone formation. It has also been suggested that diets that are high-cholesterol, high-protein, and low-fiber as well as diets that are high in starchy food (translation: low in fat but also low in fiber) can be part of the cause of gallstones.

It would seem that the best anti-gallstone diet is one high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, whole grains), moderate in fat (not more than 30% of the diet) and protein.

Exercise prevents gallstones
A study published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 1999 found that two to three hours a week of regular exercise reduced the risk of gallstones in women. The researchers found that women who spent more than 60 hours per week sitting, either while at work or while driving, had more than double the risk of gallbladder surgery. The study was done over a ten-year period and involved 60,000 women as part of what is called the Nurses Health Study. Based on their findings, the researchers recommend exercising at least 30 minutes a day five times a week.


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