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 plagues 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 selectively cited as evidence that saturated fat causes insulin resistance found no significant difference between the diets. You might not get this by reading the misleading abstract. I'll be generous and acknowledge that the (small) difference was almost statistically significant (p = 0.053).
What the authors decided to focus on instead 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 anyone who has a basic science background will see where this reasoning is flawed (warning: nerd attack. skip the rest of the paragraph if you're not interested). You need a control group for comparison, to take into account normal fluctuations caused by such things as the season, eating mostly cafeteria food, and having a doctor hooking you up to machines. 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, and it wasn't significant. To interpret the study otherwise is to ignore the basic conventions of statistics, which the authors were happy to do. There's a name for it: 'moving the goalpost'. The reviewers shouldn't have let this kind of shenanigans slide.
So we have five studies through 2008, none of which 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 (beer gut) 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". The specific fats used in the diets weren't mentioned anywhere in the paper, which is a major omission**. In any case, 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 appreciable effect on insulin sensitivity.
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. Magnesium deficiency is widespread in industrial nations, due to our over-reliance on refined foods such as sugar, white flour and oils.
#3: Sugar. Fructose reduces insulin sensitivity in humans, along with many other harmful effects (7).
As long as we continue to focus our energy on indicting saturated fat, it will continue distracting us from the real causes of disease.
* 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.
** There's this idea that pervades the diet-health literature that all saturated fats are roughly equivalent, all monounsaturated fats are equivalent, etc., therefore it doesn't matter what the source was. This is beyond absurd and reflects our cultural obsession with saturated fat. It really irks me that the reviewers didn't demand this information.
*** They did find that markers of inflammation in fat tissue were higher after the saturated fat diet.