Can a Diet of High-Fat Dairy Lower Diabetes Risk?

January 6, 2011

For years, health professionals have advised people to avoid high-fat dairy products like whole milk and cheese to prevent weight gain and associated risks like type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol.

But a new study from the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that people who consume more of a fatty acid known as trans-palmitoleate, which is found in those very foods, have a lower incidence of diabetes and healthier cholesterol levels.

Does that mean it's time to break out the cheeseburgers and heavy whipping cream? Not yet. There were several limitations to the study. Participants self-reported their diets, and because they were over the age of 65, these results might not apply to other people. The researchers acknowledge that more research is needed to determine if consumption of trans-palmitoleate can in fact lower the risk of diabetes or any other condition.

The study involved over 3,700 people from the Cardiovascular Health Study, a group of older adults who were eligible for Medicare from four U.S. communities. After completing a survey that detailed their food consumption, the volunteers had blood samples taken to measure their levels of trans-palmitoleate and other factors. The volunteers were followed from 1992 to 2006 and evaluated for health risks and dietary habits.

The researchers found that people who reported eating more high-fat dairy foods had higher levels of trans-palmitoleate in their blood. Those same people were less likely to develop diabetes—there was an almost 60 percent lower incidence of the condition among people with the highest levels of trans-palmitoleate compared to people with the lowest levels of the fatty acid.

Additionally, people with higher levels of trans-palmitoleate had higher levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) or "good" cholesterol, lower levels of triglycerides, and lower insulin resistance, which is a marker of diabetes.

This study supports other research that has found potential health benefits to dairy products. The study authors wrote that "efforts to promote exclusive consumption of low-fat and nonfat dairy products, which would lower population exposure to trans-palmitoleate, may be premature until the mediators of the health effects of dairy consumption are better established."

Source: Dariush Mozaffarian, et al. "Trans-Palmitoleic Acid, Metabolic Risk Factors, and New-Onset Diabetes in U.S. Adults: A Cohort Study." Annals of Internal Medicine, December 21, 2010 153:790-799

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at

Published: 05 Jan 2011

Last Modified: 11 Sep 2015