A woman around 45 years old shared with me a history of recent pain in her right upper stomach after a meal of fried chicken. The pain became quite severe and she went to the emergency room. They discovered she had just passed two good sized gallstones into her small intestine. Her gallbladder now looks normal. She wanted to know from me if there is a way to prevent further gallstones.

The formation of gallstones is a very complex topic, and one not very well understood. For people with gallstones in the gallbladder, who have a tendency toward attacks, we often recommend a low-fat diet. However, recent studies have shown there are several ways to reduce the risk of gallstones forming.

To my surprise, the most effective way to reduce gallstones from forming is drinking two to three cups of coffee per day. More than four cups of coffee worked even better, but I would be reluctant to recommend this for other reasons. There was a 40-percent reduction in developing symptomatic gallstones in both men and women. Also, it has to be real coffee and not the decaffeinated type.

Eating more vegetable protein and nuts is associated with a 20-percent reduction in symptomatic gallstones. This method of prevention is nice because it fits well with other current recommendations for good heart health and reducing cholesterol. Similarly, eating more polyunsaturated fats like vegetable oils and monosaturated fats like olive oil resulted in a 16- to 17-percent reduction in symptomatic gallstones. Once again, this is a very heart-healthy way of eating.

In women (but not men, apparently), taking vitamin C seems to lead to at least a 13-percent reduction in symptomatic gallstones. This is a simple thing to do and fits with many people’s desires to try and prevent other problems. If you take more vitamin C, the reduction can be more than 13 percent.

The final method involves taking a statin drug. These are medicines used to treat cholesterol. In general, statin drugs should be taken only when there is a need to reduce cholesterol or prevent blood vessel-related diseases like heart attacks. It would turn out to be very useful in those who would benefit from statins for other reason. The one downside was that it took about one or two years before the effects were noticed in the studies.

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” as the old saying goes. You can reduce your risk of symptomatic gallstones by drinking coffee, taking vitamin C, eating more vegetable protein and nuts, and eating more polyunsaturated vegetable oils and olive oil. Good heart health turns out to be good for preventing gallstones; we should all give it a try.

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