Dairy Fat and Diabetes

When it comes to dietary advice for people with diabetes — or who may develop diabetes — carbohydrates tend to take center stage. This makes sense, since carbohydrates are easily converted into glucose by the digestive system, and controlling blood glucose levels is the central concern of diabetes treatment. But after carbohydrates, fats get a lot of attention because of the role they may play in blood levels of cholesterol and triglycerides, substances that play a role in the prevention or development of cardiovascular disease. Getting the right balance of fats, it seems, is critical to long-term health for people with diabetes.

Which fats, then, are the right ones to eat? For years, the American Diabetes Association and other health and medical groups have urged people with diabetes, as well as the general population, to limit saturated and trans fats in the diet. The American Diabetes Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10% of daily calories — for most people, this means that the saturated fat found in 3 ounces of cheese would be too much. Common sources of saturated fat include fat-containing dairy products, high-fat meats, poultry skin, chocolate, and palm and coconut oils. According to the group’s advice, people with diabetes should instead try to consume more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, which are found in a variety of plant foods including nuts, seeds, avocados, and olive, canola, corn, cottonseed, safflower, soybean, and sunflower oils.


But a new study suggests that it may be wrong to avoid saturated fat found in dairy products, especially if you don’t yet have Type 2 diabetes. Published earlier this month by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study looked at nearly 27,000 middle-aged and older adults over a period of 14 years, during which 2,860 study participants developed Type 2 diabetes. As noted in an article on the study at Science World Report, participants who consumed the most high-fat diary products were 23% less likely to develop diabetes than those who consumed the least of these foods. High consumption of low-fat dairy products was not associated with a reduced diabetes risk, indicating that the fat — and not some other substance — in high-fat dairy products was responsible for the results. In contrast to dairy, consuming higher levels of high-fat meat — and meat generally — was associated with a higher risk of developing diabetes.

This study isn’t the first to call into question the conventional wisdom on saturated fat and diabetes risk. As far back as 2002, a study published in the journal Diabetes Care found that consuming higher levels of both saturated fat and total fat was associated with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes — but not after body-mass index (BMI) was controlled for. Therefore, independent of their potential effect on body weight, these fats were not found to lead to an overall increase in diabetes risk. It’s worth noting that the 2002 study, like many others over the years, did not differentiate between dairy, meat, and plant sources of saturated fat.

What’s your reaction to the news that high-fat dairy may help protect against diabetes — does this advice come too late for you? Do you think you might have consumed more high-fat dairy products if you’d known about these results years ago? Have you been avoiding high-fat dairy products because of recommendations by groups like the American Diabetes Association? Will you hold off on changing any of your dietary habits until more studies confirm the findings of this one, or until official dietary recommendations are changed? Leave a comment below!