Published on 20 August 2014

The saturated fat found in butter, cheese and red meat, while often considered unhealthy, due to links with high cholesterol and heart disease, could help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.

A recent study published in The Lancet has found that people with higher levels of the types of saturated fatty acid found in dairy products were less likely to develop type 2 diabetes.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge, MRC Human Nutrition Research in Cambridge, the University of Oxford and other universities across Europe, looked at blood samples from 12,132 people before they developed type 2 diabetes, and compared them with samples obtained from 15,164 healthy people who did not go on to develop the condition. All participants were from across Europe.

Different types of saturated fat can be identified by looking for chain-like saturated fatty acid molecules, which contain either an odd or even number of carbon atoms.

Analysis of the samples revealed that people with higher levels of “even-chain” fatty acids were more likely to develop diabetes.

Even-chain saturated fatty acids were more likely with diets high in alcohol, soft drinks, margarine and potatoes, although the body can also produce this type of fatty acid. The study found that people with higher levels of “odd-chain” fatty acids in their blood samples were less likely to develop the condition.

Odd-chain saturated fatty acids were more likely through diets high in dairy products, cakes and cookies, nuts and seeds, and fruit and vegetables.

An NHS Behind The Headlines analysis of the study concluded: “Overall, this study can only tell us that there is an association between the levels of these fatty acids and the risk of developing diabetes – it cannot prove they had a role in causing the condition. This study furthers understanding of the biological processes that may be associated with type 2 diabetes, but it cannot say that eating dairy is going to cut your risk of getting chronic disease. 

“This study suggests that not all saturated fat may be bad and that the type of dietary saturated fats influence the risk of diabetes, but it does not conclusively show that dairy products are protective. Whatever the case, the increased risk from a larger waist circumference, as well as being overweight or obese, mean that the amount you eat still needs to be balanced to avoid excess weight gain.”

More information on the study at The Lancet
Public Health England Adult obesity and type 2 diabetes report
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