Waist Away Gallstones
By Dietitian, Juliette Kellow BSc RD
Having a fat tummy – even if your body mass index (BMI) is within the normal range – could mean you’re more likely to develop gallstones and need surgery to remove them, according to a new study published in the journal Gut.
Researchers studied more than 42,000 women aged between 39 and 66 for 14 years. During this time, more than 3,000 women needed gallstone surgery. However, those with a waist measurement of 36 inches or more were almost twice as likely to need surgery to remove their gallstones compared with those with waists measuring 26 inches or less. The reason for this link is likely to be because fat around the waist is more metabolically active than the fat elsewhere in the body, say the researchers.
It’s well established that being an ‘apple’ shape – where excess fat is stored around our waists – increases the risk of several medical complaints, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, few previous studies have found that rounded waistlines also increase the risk of needing surgery for gallstones.
Gallstones occur more commonly as we get older and approximately one in 10 people over the age of 40 have them, with women aged between 20 and 60 years being twice as likely to develop them as men.
Gallstones are made when excess cholesterol in the bile – a substance that digests fat – forms crystals in the gall bladder. This small, pear-shaped organ, located just under the liver and the ribs on the right hand side of the body, may also empty too slowly causing the crystals to stagnate.
Many people with gallstones have no symptoms but they can cause severe pain just below the ribs on the right-hand side of the body. This pain may travel to the back between the shoulder blades or to the right shoulder and may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting.
Attacks are often triggered by eating fatty foods and are sometimes linked with bloating, belching and indigestion.
A low-fat diet may be helpful in relieving the symptoms of gallstones – and also has the advantage of aiding Weight Loss. However, if symptoms don’t improve or there are signs of infection in the gall bladder, surgery may be necessary. Usually this is done by keyhole surgery and involves removing both the stones and the gall bladder.
Fortunately, losing weight is one of the most important things you can do to stop gallstones from forming in the first place. A large clinical study shows that being even moderately overweight increases the risk for developing gallstones, possibly because it tends to reduce the amount of bile salts in bile, resulting in more cholesterol, and slows down the emptying of the gallbladder.
Having said this, fasting and losing weight rapidly also increases the risk of gallstones. This is because as the body metabolises fat during rapid Weight Loss, it causes the liver to secrete extra cholesterol into the bile, potentially causing gallstones. Meanwhile, fasting slows down the emptying of the gallbladder causing cholesterol to build up in the bile. As a result, it’s important to lose any excess pounds slowly.
Finally, to lower your risk of many diseases, it’s also worth checking out whether you have too much fat stored around your middle – even if your BMI is normal. This is as simple as measuring your waist.
For men, you’re at an increased risk of health problems if your waist measures 37in (94cm), and at high risk if it measures 40in (102cm) or more.
For women, your risk is increased if your waist is 32in (80cm) and you’re at high risk if it’s 35in (88cm) or more.
If you’re at an increased risk, it’s a good time to start making some lifestyle changes to lower your risk of disease. If you’re at high risk then losing fat from your midriff will almost certainly benefit your health.
The food and exercise diaries, databases and tools in WLR can help you lose weight by making changes to your lifestyle and eating habits. You can try it free for 24 hours.