The Food to Reduce Diabetes Risk?

Can eating ice cream and other high-fat dairy products reduce your risk of diabetes? A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reveals a possible connection between eating large amounts of full-fat dairy and preventing the onset of diabetes.

But don’t run for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s just yet.

The Link Between Dairy and Diabetes

The benefit of dairy in reducing the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes (a chronic condition in which your body doesn’t properly use the hormone insulin, which regulates blood sugar) is not a new concept. Other studies have also identified the protective factor that dairy products seem to bring.

The Fat Factor

Researchers looked at the eating habits of 27,000 people enrolled in Sweden’s Malmö Diet and Cancer study to identify connections between eating dairy products and meats and the development of diabetes. Both these foods are are high in fat, specifically saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels.

What the researchers discovered is that people who ate the most meat had an 36% increased risk of developing diabetes compared to those who ate the least, while those who consumed high-fat dairy actually had a 23 percent lower risk.

"Our results regarding meat intake are in line with previous findings, but we did not really expect high intakes of high-fat dairy to be associated with decreased risk," said lead author Ulrika Ericson. "The individual dairy product associated with the strongest risk reduction was yogurt/sour milk. It may mean that high-fat dairy products could be part of a healthy diet, but in addition to dairy fat, interactions between different nutrients and other bioactive compounds may lie behind our findings." She and the other researchers speculate that some of the fatty acids more common in dairy could be the key to this difference.

Putting it Into Perspective

While the research raises some intriguing ideas about reducing diabetes, researchers stress that people should focus their attention on eating an overall balanced diet, rather than simply loading up on high-fat dairy products. As Ericson notes, "I would say that the focus should be on healthy food choices in general rather than on high- or low-fat. Foods, including dairy products, contain components that are more or less healthy, and the overall balance is important."

And Leigh Tracy, RD, LDN, a registered dietitian at The Center for Endocrinology at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, thinks that people should stick to low-fat or no-fat dairy products at this point.

"According to the upcoming 2015 dietary guidelines, there are several health benefits of dairy products, one of which is the possibility of lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. It is recommended, however, to consume low-fat or fat-free dairy products to reduce the intake of saturated fat," Tracy says, adding, "More research is needed before there can be a recommendation to consume high-fat dairy products." In fact, the American Diabetes Association recommends that less than 10% of the calories you consume be in the form of saturated fats.

How Much Dairy Do You Need?

The current general nutritional recommendation is for people to consume three cups per day of low-fat or fat-free dairy products, since dairy is a great source of protein and calcium, Tracy notes. Unfortunately, "Currently, more than 80 percent of Americans do not meet this recommendation."

For good sources of dairy, the American Diabetes Association suggests options like fat-free or low-fat (1%) milk; non-fat regular or light yogurt or Greek yogurt (plain), and fortified soy milk (without added flavors).

Leigh Tracy, RD, LDN, reviewed this article.


Ulrika Ericson, Assistant Researcher, Lund University, Lund, Sweden. Email to author, June 2, 2015.

Tracy, Leigh, RD, LDN. The Center for Endocrinology, Mercy Medical Center. Email interview, May 5, 2015.

Ericson, Ulrika, et al. "Food Sources of Fat May Clarify the Inconsistent Role of Dietary Fat Intake for Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 101, 5 (2015): 1065 1080. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.103010

"High-Fat Dairy Products Linked to Reduced Type 2 Diabetes Risk." Medical News Today. Last updated April 8, 2015.

"Fats." American Diabetes Association. Page last reviewed September 24, 2014.

"Saturated Fats." American Heart Association. Updated January 12, 2015.

"Dairy." American Diabetes Association. Accessed May 11, 2015.

"Diabetes Basics: Type 2." American Diabetes Association. Accessed May 11, 2015.