Everybody crowds around the appetizer table at holiday parties — baked brie and festive logs of goat cheese can be just too tempting to pass up. But now a new study suggests you don’t have to feel quite as guilty: researchers at Harvard School of Public Health and colleagues found that a fatty acid found in dairy fat may help people prevent Type 2 diabetes. (More on Time.com: Can You Get High on Gingerbread? The Truth About Nutmeg)
The compound is trans-palmitoleic acid, a fatty acid found in milk, cheese, yogurt and butter. Researchers say it may help explain other recent research suggesting that high-dairy diets reduce the risk of diabetes.
For the study, researchers examined 3,736 participants in the government-funded Cardiovascular Health Study, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years. Risk factors for metabolic problems, including blood glucose, insulin and fatty acid levels, were measured from blood samples taken in 1992, and then participants were regularly followed up for diabetes development.
The data showed that at the start of the study higher circulating levels of trans-palmitoleic acid — which comes from the diet and is not produced by the body naturally — were associated with healthier levels of blood cholesterol, insulin and insulin sensitivity. Over the long term, participants who were in the highest percentile of trans-palmitoleic acid levels had a 60% reduced chance of developing Type 2 diabetes, compared with those in the lowest quintile. (More on Time.com: Is Eating Fish Good For You — Even If It’s Fried?)
“This represents an almost threefold difference in risk of developing diabetes among individuals with the highest blood levels of this fatty acid,” lead author Dariush Mozaffarian told the Harvard Gazette. The Gazette explains:
In contrast to the types of industrially produced trans fats found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, which have been linked to higher risk of heart disease, trans-palmitoleic acid is almost exclusively found in naturally occurring dairy and meat trans fats, which in prior studies have not been linked to higher heart disease risk.
Because this was an observational study, the next step will be to study the fatty acid in a clinical trial. Researchers hope they will get closer to a treatment program to help manage or prevent diabetes.