Obese woman measures her waist with a measuring tape in casual clothing on a white background.

(© spaskov - stock.adobe.com)

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Obesity is not a word that comes to most minds when thinking about health. While indulging in foods loaded with saturated fat can quickly lead to weight gain, a new study finds there could be a silver lining to being overweight. Researchers with the Mayo Clinic in Arizona say obesity can sometimes protect people from developing certain diseases.

While a diet rich in unsaturated fats might exacerbate certain illnesses, scientists say eating saturated fats could help protect against them. The findings could offer the answer as to why obesity seems to have a positive impact during acute or short term illness.

Study authors say one example is acute pancreatitis (AP). Diets rich in unsaturated fat may worsen the condition however, saturated fats may provide protection. People with the illness suffer from inflammation of the pancreas, with stomach pain being the main symptom.

“Obesity sometimes seems protective in disease,” the team, led by corresponding author Vijay Singh, writes in the journal Science Advances. “This obesity paradox is predominantly described in reports from the Western Hemisphere during acute illnesses.”

Certain foods create harmful fatty acids

In the study, researchers analyzed data from 11 countries and experimented with mice. The results suggest that visceral fat, stored around the abdominal organs, with a high unsaturated fat content leads to more non-esterified fatty acids. These fatty acids trigger cell injury, systemic inflammation, and organ failure even in people with a comparatively low Body Mass Index.

Meanwhile, visceral fat with a higher saturated fat content interferes with the production of these fatty acids and results in milder pancreatitis.

Previous research discovered that obesity seems to confer protection in patients with acute medical issues such as burns, trauma, and cardiovascular surgery. However, the full impact of fat composition on the severity of a disease has remained unclear.

The team from the Mayo Clinic and St. Louis University School of Medicine assessed how the types of fats people consume in different populations can influence body fat composition and correlate with the severity of AP.

They did this using 20 clinical reports from 11 countries that link pancreatitis severity with a cutoff BMI of 30. They also looked at seven clinical reports with a cutoff BMI of 25 and dietary fat data from the Food and Agricultural Organization.

The right diet can help or hurt pancreatitis

The study uncovered a moderate link between the percentage of patients with pancreatitis and their unsaturated fat intake. The results also revealed that a severe form of this disease occurred in people with lower BMIs in countries that ate food with less saturated fatty acids.

To test how fat composition affects pancreatitis outcomes, the team fed mice either a diet enriched with an unsaturated fatty acid called linoleic acid, or a saturated fatty acid called palmitic acid.

When they induced pancreatitis in the mice, only 10 percent of those on the linoleic acid diet survived after three days. In comparison, 90 percent of those on palmitic acid lived.

After comparing the animals’ fat pads and fatty acid serum levels, study authors say saturated fats do not interact well with the enzyme pancreatic triglyceride lipase. This leads to lower production of damaging long-chain non-esterified fatty acids.

The authors note that other factors they did not study, such as sex, genetic background, and the presence of other diseases, may also contribute to severe acute pancreatitis rates in humans.

SWNS writer Laura Sharman contributed to this report.

Our Editorial Process

StudyFinds publishes digestible, agenda-free, transparent research summaries that are intended to inform the reader as well as stir civil, educated debate. We do not agree nor disagree with any of the studies we post, rather, we encourage our readers to debate the veracity of the findings themselves. All articles published on StudyFinds are vetted by our editors prior to publication and include links back to the source or corresponding journal article, if possible.

Our Editorial Team

Steve Fink


Chris Melore


Sophia Naughton

Associate Editor