I don't know how many times I've seen the claim in journal articles and on the internet that saturated fat reduces insulin sensitivity. The idea is that saturated fat reduces the body's ability to handle glucose effectively, placing people on the road to diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Given the "selective citation disorder" that is common in the diet-health literature, perhaps this particular claim deserves a closer look.
I found a review article from 2008 that addressed this question (1). I like this review because it only includes high-quality trials that used reliable methods of determining insulin sensitivity*.
On to the meat of it. There were 5 studies in which non-diabetic people were fed diets rich in saturated fat, and compared with a group eating a diet rich in monounsaturated (like olive oil) or polyunsaturated (like corn oil) fat. They ranged in duration from one week to 3 months. Four of the five studies found that fat quality did not affect insulin sensitivity, including one of the 3-month studies.
The fifth study, which is the one that's nearly always cited in the diet-health literature, requires some discussion. This was the KANWU study (2). Over the course of three months, investigators fed 163 volunteers a diet rich in either saturated fat or monounsaturated fat.
The SAFA diet included butter and a table margarine containing a relatively high proportion of SAFAs. The MUFA diet included a spread and a margarine containing high proportions of oleic acid derived from high-oleic sunflower oil and negligible amounts of trans fatty acids and n-3 fatty acids and olive oil.Yummy. After three months of these diets, there was no significant difference in insulin sensitivity between the saturated fat group and the monounsaturated fat group. Yes, you read that right. Even the study that's commonly cited as evidence that saturated fat causes insulin resistance found no significant difference between the diets. You might not get this by reading the abstract. I'll be generous and acknowledge that the small difference was almost statistically significant (p = 0.053).
What the authors focused on is the fact that insulin sensitivity declined slightly but significantly on the saturated fat diet compared with the pre-diet baseline. That's why this study is cited as evidence that saturated fat impairs insulin sensitivity. But those of you with a science background will be able to spot the problem here (warning: nerd attack. skip the rest of the paragraph if you're not interested in details). You need a control group for comparison, to take into account normal fluctuations caused by such things as the season, eating a new diet provided by the investigators, and having a doctor poking at you. That control group was the group eating monounsaturated fat. The comparison between diet groups was the 'primary outcome', in statistics lingo. That's the comparison that matters most, and it wasn't significant. What the authors relied on for their conclusion was a 'secondary outcome', which is good for forming hypotheses but does not exceed the primary outcome in importance.
So we have five studies through 2008, which overall offer little or no support the idea that saturated fat reduces insulin sensitivity in non-diabetics. Since the review paper was published, I know of one subsequent study that asked the same question (3). Susan J. van Dijk and colleagues fed volunteers with abdominal overweight a diet rich in either saturated fat or monounsaturated fat. I e-mailed the senior author and she said the saturated fat diet was "mostly butter". After 8 weeks, insulin sensitivity was virtually identical between the two groups. This study appeared well controlled and used the gold standard method for assessing insulin sensitivity, called the euglycemic-hyperinsulinemic clamp technique***.
The evidence from controlled trials is rather consistent that saturated fat has no major effect on insulin sensitivity in humans, at least on time scales of a few months.
UPDATE: other trials have added to this finding. The large European LIPIGENE randomized controlled diet trial found that substantial differences in SFA intake had no effect on insulin sensitivity over 12 weeks in people with the metabolic syndrome (3b).
Why Are We so Focused on Saturated Fat?
Answer: because it's the nutrient everyone loves to hate. As an exercise in completeness, I'm going to mention three dietary factors that actually reduce insulin sensitivity, and get a lot less air time than saturated fat.
#1: Caffeine. That's right, controlled trials show that your favorite murky beverage reduces insulin sensitivity (4, 5). Is it actually relevant to real life? I doubt it. The doses used were large and the studies short-term.
#2: Magnesium deficiency. A low-magnesium diet reduced insulin sensitivity by 25% over the course of three weeks (6). I think this is probably relevant to long-term insulin sensitivity and overall health, although it would be good to have longer-term data. Sub-optimal magnesium intake is common in industrial nations, due to our over-reliance on refined foods such as sugar, white flour and oils.
#3: Overeating. Eating too many calories, and accumulating body fat, are probably the primary reason for garden-variety insulin resistance.
* For the nerds: euglycemic-hyperinsulinemic clamp (the gold standard), insulin suppression test, or intravenous glucose tolerance test with Minimal Model. They didn't include studies that reported HOMA as their only measure, because it's not very accurate.
*** They did find that markers of inflammation in fat tissue were higher after the saturated fat diet.