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Diets Rich in Vegetable Fat May Prevent Diabetes

WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Aug. 24, 2001 -- Women who consume diets loaded with fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and olive oil are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those women who eat fewer of these vegetable fats, a new study suggests.

In the study, which appears in the September issue of Diabetes Care, those women who consumed the highest amounts of vegetable fat -- 41.7 grams per day -- had a 22% lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than their counterparts who consumed the least amount of such fats.

The study also found that women who traded animal fat or saturated fat for the type found mainly in vegetable oils such as safflower, sunflower, corn, flaxseed, canola oils, and fish lowered their risk of type 2 diabetes by about 16%.

As many as 95% of the 16 million Americans with diabetes have the type 2 form of the disease, which is most closely associated with obesity. It occurs when the body does not appropriately respond to insulin, a hormone that helps the body use blood sugar (glucose).

"This study contributes to a growing body of evidence that improvements in diet can reduce diabetes risk," says lead study author Katie A. Meyer, MPH, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at Harvard University School of Public Health.

Specifically, people at risk of developing diabetes can reap benefits "by substituting saturated fats with vegetable fats," Meyer says. "The benefit of this is not restricted to diabetes, but is heart healthy and, perhaps, good for preventing some cancers."

To arrive at their findings, researchers followed 35,988 women aged 55-69 for 11 years. During that time, 1,890 developed type 2 diabetes. Overall, women who were least likely to develop diabetes ate the healthier types of fats.

"In addition to weight control and exercise, our findings, and those of others, support a diet high in fiber and whole grains, and substituting vegetable fats for animal fats," she says.

Precisely why vegetable fats have such an effect on diabetes risk is unclear. However, since they are derived from veggies, vegetable fats may contain some potentially healthful components that aren't in polyunsaturated fats, Meyer speculates.

In an editorial accompanying the new study, Edith J.M. Feskens, PhD, says that while it is clear that substituting healthier fats for saturated fats reduces diabetes risk, it is not clear whether saturated fats raise diabetes risk on their own. She is from the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands,

"The most important recommendation is to eat in a way to avoid weight gain," says another study author Aaron R. Folsom, MD, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. When it comes to type 2 diabetes, he says, "Obesity is the most important risk factor ... so caloric balance and physical activity are primary, and beyond that, a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and low in fat would seem to be beneficial," he tells WebMD.

"It's an important piece of information," says Gerald Bernstein, MD, speaking to WebMD about the new report. He is the past-president of the American Diabetes Association and is an endocrinologist at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York. "We already give the advice that you shouldn't eat saturated fat, or if you do eat it, you should minimize it."

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