Dieting & Gallstones

How does weight affect gallstones?

Being overweight or having obesity may make you more likely to develop gallstones, especially if you are a woman. Researchers have found that people who have obesity may have higher levels of cholesterol in their bile, which can cause gallstones. People who have obesity may also have large gallbladders that do not work well. Some studies have shown that people who carry large amounts of fat around their waist may be more likely to develop gallstones than those who carry fat around their hips and thighs.

Losing weight very quickly may raise your chances of forming gallstones, however. Talk with your health care professional about how to lose weight safely.

How does my fast weight loss affect gallstones?

When you don’t eat for a long period of time or you lose weight quickly, your liver releases extra cholesterol into the bile. Fast weight loss can also prevent the gallbladder from emptying properly. Weight-loss surgery may lead to fast weight loss and higher risk of gallstones.

Your chances of developing gallstones may depend on the type of weight-loss treatment you choose. Diets or surgeries that cause fast weight loss may be more likely to lead to gallstone problems than diets or surgeries that lead to slower weight loss. If you have silent gallstones, you may also be more likely to develop gallstone symptoms.

Several factors may raise your chances of having problems with gallstones after weight-loss surgery or a very low-calorie diet. These factors include

  • gallstones that you had before your weight-loss surgery or before you went on a very low-calorie diet, especially if the stones caused symptoms
  • a large amount of extra weight before you have weight-loss surgery or go on a very low-calorie diet
  • very quick weight loss after the surgery or a very low-calorie diet

If you are starting a very low-calorie diet or having weight-loss surgery, talk with your doctor about how to lower your chances of developing gallstones. The medicine ursodiol can help prevent gallstones in people who lose weight rapidly through very low-calorie diets or weight-loss surgery.

An overweight woman and man taking a walk.
If you are starting a very low-calorie diet or having weight-loss surgery, talk with your doctor about how to lower your chances of developing gallstones.

Is weight cycling a problem?

Weight cycling, or losing and regaining weight repeatedly, may also lead to gallstones. The more weight you lose and regain during a cycle, the greater your chances of developing gallstones.

Stay away from "crash diets" that promise to help you drop the pounds quickly. Aim for losing weight at a slower pace and keeping it off over time.

How can I safely lose weight to lower my chances of getting gallstones?

Losing weight at a slow pace may make it less likely that you will develop gallstones. For people who are overweight or have obesity, experts recommend beginning with a weight loss of 5 to 10 percent of your starting weight over a period of 6 months.4 In addition, weight loss may bring you other benefits such as better mood, more energy, and positive self-image.

When making healthy food choices to help you lose weight, you can choose food that may also lower your chances of developing gallstones.

Regular physical activity, which will improve your overall health, may also lower your chances of developing gallstones. To improve health or prevent weight gain, aim for 2 hours and 30 minutes of physical activity each week.5

Talk with your doctor before you start an eating and physical activity plan to improve your health or maintain your weight loss. View weight management resources from the NIDDK.

References

November 2017
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This content is provided as a service of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), part of the National Institutes of Health. The NIDDK translates and disseminates research findings through its clearinghouses and education programs to increase knowledge and understanding about health and disease among patients, health professionals, and the public. Content produced by the NIDDK is carefully reviewed by NIDDK scientists and other experts.