When it comes to diabetes risk, not all fats are created equal. In contrast to animal fats in general, eating and drinking high-fat dairy products has been tied to a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, according to Swedish research.

Overview

The findings, which were presented in 2014 at the annual meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes in Vienna, Austria, showed that people who had eight or more portions of high-fat dairy products a day had a 23 percent lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes than those who had one or fewer portions a day. The high-fat dairy products included a cream and whole milk. The same effect was not found for those eating low-fat dairy products.

"Our findings suggest, that in contrast to animal fats in general, fats specific to dairy products may have a role in prevention of type 2 diabetes," said lead study author Dr. Ulrika Ericson, from the Lund University Diabetes Center.

The research

The study involved 26,930 people ages 45 to 74, and about 60 percent of the participants were women. Through the 14 years of follow-up, about one out of 10 people were diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

Researchers controlled a number of factors to narrow down other possible contributing causes, including body mass index (BMI), total energy intake, leisure time, education, smoking, and alcohol use.

Conclusion

As it turned out, dairy fats may actually provide protection against the disease. High-fat fermented milk fat, found in yogurts and milk with a regular fat content around three percent, cut the risk of diabetes by 20 percent in people who drank six ounces of it per day, compared to those who didn't drink any.

"Our observations may contribute to clarifying previous findings regarding dietary fats and their food sources in relation to type 2 diabetes," Ericson explained. "The decreased risk at high intakes of high-fat dairy products, but not of low-fat dairy products, indicates that dairy fat, at least partly, explains observed protective associations between dairy intake and type 2 diabetes."

How dietary fats influence glucose

Most people with diabetes focus on carbohydrates when it comes to diabetes care. A glass of milk, independent of its fat content, contains an average of 12 grams of carbohydrates. But in terms of fat, high-fat dairy products with a very low protein content are not likely to affect insulin levels. The research suggests it may be best to opt for low-protein, high-fat dairy.

Dietary fats could influence glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity. Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats might be your best choice.

Portion size

The “eight daily portions” of high-fat dairy in the study do not amount to as much as you might think. Together they amount to the equivalent of only about six ounces of whole milk or a little more than one ounce of whole cream a day. In coffee terms, that's about 2.5 tablespoons of cream in a cup of joe.

But don't clean out the dairy aisle just yet. Although the study found a possible link between high-fat dairy and type 2 diabetes, it does not prove cause and effect. And although the study included data from a large population sample, there are big differences between the average person's diet in the United States and that of the average European. Researchers aren't certain whether the results would hold true for a similarly sized U.S. population sample, but at the very least, these results suggest that certain fats may not deserve the villain label they have been given for decades.

To learn more about good nutrition and diabetes:

Diabetic Dieting: An Easier Approach to Eating Well
Diabetic Diet: Eat Smarter, Not Less
Choose the Right Fruits to Boost Your Diet