Health Risks of Obesity: Gallstones

health risks of obesity
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A condition called gallstones is one of many serious health risks of obesity. Rapid weight loss from dieting or bariatric surgery can also increase the risk of developing gallstones. Gallbladder disease and gallstones can be treated with help from your doctor.

What Are Gallstones?

Gallstones are clusters of solid material that form in the gallbladder. Your gallbladder is a small organ in your upper abdomen that aids in digestion.

Gallstones are made up of either cholesterol or bilirubin. They occur either as one large stone or many small ones. Gallstones vary in size and can be as large as a golf ball or as small as a grain of sand.

Symptoms of Gallstones

If you develop gallstones, you many not even realize that you have them because you may experience no symptoms. Doctors call these asymptomatic or silent gallstones.

But sometimes gallstones cause abdominal or back pain. These are referred to as symptomatic gallstones. In rare cases, gallstones can lead to other serious health problems.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, symptoms of gallstones or a gallstone attack include:

  • Severe pain in the upper right side of the abdomen that starts suddenly and lasts from 30 minutes to several hours
  • Pain under the right shoulder or in the right shoulder blade
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Indigestion after eating foods high in fat or protein, including desserts and fried foods

    The organization also notes that gallstone attacks are more likely to  happen in the evening or at night and often occur after a heavy meal.

    How Are Gallstones Treated?

    Silent gallstones are not usually treated. They sometimes disappear on their own. Symptomatic gallstones, however, can be addressed and treated.

    If you think that you have gallstones, your doctor may perform an imaging test to make sure you receive a proper diagnosis. If it is confirmed that you have gallstones or gallbladder disease, there are different ways that they condition may be treated.

    The most common treatment for gallstones is the surgical removal of the gallbladder, called a cholecystectomy. The procedure may be performed via laparoscopy or open procedure. In other cases, medications may be used to dissolve the gallstones.

    Gallstones and Obesity

    Obese individuals are more likely to develop gallstones than those who are at a healthier weight. For women, obesity is an even stronger risk factor for developing gallstones. Researchers have found that if you are obese, you may produce higher levels of cholesterol. This leads to the production of bile that contains more cholesterol than your body can dissolve. When this happens, gallstones can form from the undissolved cholesterol.

    In addition, the gallbladders of obese individuals may not empty normally or completely.

     Research has shown that if you have excess fat around your stomach (abdominal obesity), you may be at greater risk for developing gallstones than people who carry excess fat mainly around their hip and thigh areas.

    But weight loss can also cause problems if it happens too quickly. Rapid weight loss (losing more than three pounds per week) from very low calorie diets or as a result of bariatric surgery may increase your chances of developing gallstones, too. Slower weight loss at a healthy rate of one to two pounds a week is much less likely to cause gallstones.

    Although losing weight quickly may increase the risk of developing gallstones, obesity increases your risk even more. For this reason, experts recommend that you lose weight at a slow and steady rate to lower the risk of developing gallstones and many other obesity-related illnesses. 

    *Edited by Malia Frey, Weight Loss Expert


    Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity. The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed: January 19, 2016.

    Douglas O. Olsen, MD, FACS. Gallbladder Disease and the Obese Patient. Obesity Action Coalition. Accessed: January 19, 2016.

    Health Information. Dieting and Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed: January 19, 2016.

    Health Information. Gallstones. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Accessed: January 19, 2016.

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