The relationship between saturated fat and type 2 diabetes may be more complex than previously thought, according to the results of a large international study published today in the journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. It found that saturated fatty acids can be associated with both an increased and decreased risk of developing the disease, depending on the type of fatty acids present in the blood.
The results add to the growing debate around the health consequences of fat, and could partially explain evidence from recent studies that suggest some foods high in saturated fats, such as dairy products, could actually lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Saturated fat is typically found in foods with a high proportion of animal fat, such as butter, cheese and red meat and in fried foods. It is made up of chains of individual fat molecules (fatty acids) that vary in length, depending on how many carbon atoms they contain. These saturated fatty acids have long been considered detrimental to health, and current recommendations suggest they should make up no more than 10 per cent of the calories we eat. However, the evidence of a link between saturated fat and type 2 diabetes is unclear.
Lead scientist Dr Nita Forouhi, from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, said:
Our findings provide strong evidence that individual saturated fatty acids are not all the same. The challenge we face now is to work out how the levels of these fatty acids in our blood correspond to the different foods we eat. Our research could help trigger new directions in experimental studies and basic research so we can better understand the biology.”
In the EPIC-InterAct Study which was funded mainly by the European Commission under its Framework 6 programme, a team of researchers led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, at the University of Cambridge, set out to examine the relationship between blood levels of nine different saturated fatty acids and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in later life.
They looked at 12,403 people who developed type 2 diabetes from among a group of 340,234 adults across eight European countries. Using a sophisticated method of high-speed blood analysis, developed especially for the project by researchers at MRC Human Nutrition Research, they determined the proportion of each of the nine fatty acids in blood samples from the study participants and related this with later incidence of type 2 diabetes.
They found that saturated fatty acids with an even number of carbon atoms in their chain (14:0, 16:0 and 18:0) were associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, while the odd-chain saturated fatty acids, 15:0 and 17:0, were associated with a lower risk.
Dr Forouhi explained:
These odd-chain saturated fatty acids are well-established markers of eating dairy fats, which is consistent with several recent studies, including our own, that have indicated a protective effect against type 2 diabetes from eating yoghurt and other dairy products.
“In contrast, the situation for even-chain saturated fatty acids, such as 16:0 and 18:0, is more complex. As well as being consumed in fatty diets, these blood fatty acids can also be made within the body through a process which is stimulated by the intake of carbohydrates and alcohol.”
The authors therefore conclude that it is too early to make any direct dietary recommendations on the basis of this work.
Professor Nick Wareham, Chief Co-ordinator of the InterAct project and Director of the MRC Epidemiology Unit, said:
With the world’s largest study of its kind, we can place a lot of confidence in these findings, which help us to better understand the relationships between saturated fatty acids and risk of developing diabetes.”
Professor David Lomas, Chair of the MRC’s Population and Systems Medicine Board, added:
Type 2 diabetes has serious consequences for health and healthcare costs, and its numbers are rising in all world regions. Identifying new ways to not only treat, but prevent the condition are therefore vital. This research arising from 26 research institutions across Europe is an example of the power of international collaboration to generate larger and more reliable studies. By combining large-scale population data with advanced laboratory analysis, this research has delivered a compelling case to look more closely at the contribution of individual components of fat to health and disease.”
The paper, entitled ‘Differences in the prospective association between individual plasma phospholipid saturated fatty acids and incident type 2 diabetes – the EPIC-InterAct case-cohort study’, by Forouhi et al, is published online in the Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.
About the Medical Research Council
The Medical Research Council has been at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers’ money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Twenty-nine MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms. www.mrc.ac.uk
About the University of Cambridge
The mission of the University of Cambridge is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence. To date, 90 affiliates of the University have won the Nobel Prize. Founded in 1209, the University comprises 31 autonomous Colleges, which admit undergraduates and provide small-group tuition, and 150 departments, faculties and institutions. Cambridge is a global university. Its 19,000 student body includes 3,700 international students from 120 countries. Cambridge researchers collaborate with colleagues worldwide, and the University has established larger-scale partnerships in Asia, Africa and America.
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