Gallstone Risk from Trans Fats
Men who eat a diet rich in trans fats have a higher risk of forming gallstones than men who eat low amounts trans fats, according to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine (2005;165:1011–5).
Gallstones are a common health problem in many parts of the world. About 20% of people in the US over 65 years old have gallstones. Gallstones form when excess cholesterol precipitates out of the bile produced by the liver and stored in the gallbladder. Gallstones can cause irritation and inflammation in the gallbladder, a condition known as cholecystitis. Indigestion, particularly after eating fatty foods, may be the only symptom of gallstones, but if the condition progresses to cholecystitis, nausea, vomiting, and severe pain in the upper right part of the abdomen become likely. More than 500,000 people in the US undergo surgery to remove their gallbladder due to cholecystitis each year. Gallstones are more common in women, in people who are overweight, and in people with a family history of gallstones. High blood levels of total cholesterol, LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and triglycerides, and low levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol are associated with a higher risk of developing gallstones. Eating too much sugar and animal fat, too little fiber and plant fat, and too many calories in general all appear to contribute to gallstone formation.
Trans fats are formed when an unsaturated fat is artificially saturated through a process known as hydrogenation. This technique is used to turn a liquid oil into a solid substance such as margarine or shortening. Trans fats are commonly found in commercial products such as crackers, cookies, bread, and peanut butter. Although they were originally introduced as a healthful alternative to other saturated fats, it is now known that trans fats are more dangerous than naturally-occurring saturated fats. High intake of trans fats is strongly linked to increased cardiac disease risk, and is likely to contribute to cancer risk as well. The effect of trans fats on the risk of developing gallstones has not been previously studied.
The current report comes from data collected in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study. The participants in the original study, all male healthcare practitioners, answered a questionnaire about diet, medications, and health history at the beginning of the study. Questionnaires were used to update health status every two years and to evaluate diet every 4 years for a total of 12 years. The information provided by 45,912 of these men was used for the current study. Intake of trans fats was nearly three times higher in men in the top 20% compared with men in the bottom 20%. Men who ate the most trans fats were 23% more likely to develop gallstones and 37% more likely to need surgery for gallstones than men who ate the least trans fats.
The results of this suggest that trans fats in the diet contribute to gallstone formation. They have also been shown to increase total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglyceride levels more than natural saturated fats, such as those found in animal fats. Furthermore, they reduce levels of HDL cholesterol, a type of cholesterol believed to protect against gallstone formation. The findings of this study add to a growing list of reasons for recommending that trans fats be eliminated from the diet as much as possible.
Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.
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