Exploring links between dairy foods and Type 2 diabetes

  • Article
  • March 27, 2018

According to the CDC, following a healthy eating pattern and getting enough exercise are two lifestyle changes that have the potential to reverse or delay the progression to Type 2 diabetes (T2D) in people with prediabetes.

High-quality evidence links low-fat dairy and yogurt consumption with reduced risk for T2D, a recent systematic review concluded. Research is also showing that following a healthy eating pattern, including low-fat and fat-free dairy foods, can support metabolic health.

Most recently, a large 12-year prospective study among adults in the Framingham Heart Study Offspring Cohort investigated associations between dairy food consumption and the development of prediabetes or the progression to T2D. This is the first observational study to account for baseline blood glucose status when investigating how dairy foods are associated with prediabetes or T2D.

Among participants who had a normal blood glucose level at the beginning of the study:

  • Results showed an association between eating total, full-fat or low-fat dairy foods more frequently and lower risk of incident prediabetes (or eventually T2D).
  • Eating 14 or more servings of dairy foods per week was linked to a reduced risk of incident prediabetes between 25 and 39 percent when compared with eating less than four servings per week. 

Among those who had prediabetes at the beginning of the study:

  • Results showed an association between eating full-fat dairy foods more frequently and lower risk of developing T2D. There was a 70 percent lower risk of developing T2D among those with prediabetes eating 14 or more servings per week of high fat dairy (whole milk, ice cream, cottage cheese, ricotta and other cheese) compared to eating less than one serving per week.
  • Results showed an association between eating cheese more frequently and a 63 percent lower risk of developing T2D among people with prediabetes. The study compared four or more servings of cheese per week -- including cottage, ricotta and other cheeses -- to less than one serving.

This is not the first study to suggest a beneficial link between dairy foods, even higher fat dairy foods, and T2D risk. For example, a prospective study published last year linked lower risk of T2D in Americans who had higher bio-marker levels of dairy fats in their blood. This area of research is still evolving. More studies are needed to establish whether there is a favorable association between dairy fat and risk of T2D.

An unexplained finding of the Framingham study was that eating yogurt was not associated with risk of prediabetes or T2D in individuals with impaired glucose at baseline. While high quality evidence supports the association between yogurt consumption and lower risk of T2D, previous studies did not account for the baseline glycemic status of participants.

The USDA’s 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend low-fat and fat-free dairy foods. They also allow up to 10% of total calories coming from saturated fat. Joslin Diabetes Center (JDC), a leader in diabetes research and treatment, recommends eating some dairy foods, such as milk and yogurt, as a source of protein for overweight and obese adults with prediabetes or T2D in its 2016 Clinical Nutrition Guidelines. Whole milk dairy foods and cheese, which contain saturated fat, may be included in a healthy eating plan as long as only 10% of total calories come from saturated fat. Joslin always recommends talking with one’s doctor or nutritionist before altering a meal plan.