Dear Alice,

I am taking a nutrition class. Last week, we were talking about the GI tract. I asked what happens to a person if they have their gallbladder removed. What are the implications in their diet? Do they have to stop eating fat or just start eating a low-fat diet? Will the system still digest fat, but now is it only harder?

Dear Reader,

How amazing is it that you can remove a part of the human body and it’ll still work like a well-oiled machine? The story of gallbladder removal (or cholecystectomy) is just one example of how adaptable bodies can be. The gallbladder, an organ near your liver, acts like a reservoir for bile to be stored and used to digest fats later when you need it. But, even once it’s removed, your body can still produce the bile just like before. In fact, your body can even adjust to store bile in the duct between the liver and small intestine, creating a kind of makeshift gallbladder for itself. Pretty impressive, eh? And, more to your line of questioning, some people may notice changes in digestion and need to alter their diets after a cholecystectomy either temporarily or permanently (no two patients are the same!). However, most people are able to return to business as usual with their diet within a few days or weeks. Even though fats sometimes get a bad rap, they are a key part of your body’s dietary needs, and fortunately, the gallbladder-less can still reap the benefits.

There are no universally recommended diets for those who’ve recently parted with their gallbladder. However, there are some general suggestions that dieticians have thought up to help get your digestive tract running as smoothly as possible after surgery:

  • Eat smaller, frequent meals, so that your digestive tract can work with smaller amounts of food at a time without its reservoir of bile.
  • Avoid high-fat foods right after surgery, to give your body has time to compensate and adjust to the decreased amount of bile.
  • Slowly increase fiber intake, which can help with diarrhea.
  • Avoid caffeinated beverages, spicy foods, and dairy right after surgery, which might upset or irritate your digestive tract until it has a chance to bounce back.

List adapted from Mayo Clinic.

The newly gallbladder-less might also want to consider how other side effects from surgery can impact their lives. About 90 percent of gallbladder removals are done as laparoscopic surgeries, which involve a few small incisions to insert a small camera and instruments and remove it as noninvasively as possible. This is the “gold standard”: the risk of complications, such as infection, are low and pain usually decreases significantly after three days. For patients with abdominal scarring or other conditions, an open surgery might be done instead. This carries a slightly higher risk of complications (infection, bruising at the site, or urine retention), but is also a low-risk procedure. Gallbladder removals are very safe, but it’s probably good to be prepared for some pain and discomfort in the days following either type of surgery.

Gallbladder removal may leave you an organ lighter, but chances are you’ll hardly miss it. Maintaining a balanced diet with lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, listening to your body’s signals, and keeping in touch with your health care provider about any concerns can help you carry on just as you did before, fats and all!

Alice!
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