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Ethnic- and sex-specific associations between plasma fatty acids and markers of insulin resistance in healthy young adults

Jessica C Ralston1, Michael A Zulyniak1, Daiva E Nielsen2, Shannon Clarke1, Alaa Badawi3, Ahmed El-Sohemy2, David WL Ma1 and David M Mutch1*

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Human Health and Nutritional Sciences, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario N1G 2W1, Canada

2 Department of Nutritional Sciences, University of Toronto, 150 College Street, Toronto, Ontario M5S 3E2, Canada

3 Public Health Agency of Canada, Office of Biotechnology, Genomics and Population Health, Toronto M5V 3L7, Canada

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Nutrition & Metabolism 2013, 10:42  doi:10.1186/1743-7075-10-42

Published: 17 June 2013



Although evidence indicates that fatty acids (FA) can affect insulin resistance (IR), not all FA contribute equally to the process. Indeed, monounsaturated FA (MUFA) and polyunsaturated FA (PUFA) are reported to reduce IR, whereas saturated FA (SFA) and trans FA appear to increase IR. However, it is not yet clear how individual FA are associated with markers of IR, and whether these relationships are influenced by ethnicity and/or sex. Therefore, the goal of this study was to examine the ethnic- and sex-specific relationships between plasma FA and markers of IR in a cohort of healthy young Caucasian, East Asian, and South Asian adults.


Gas chromatography was used to quantify fasting plasma FA from young Canadian adults (22.6 ± 0.1 yrs) of Caucasian (n = 461), East Asian (n = 362), or South Asian (n = 104) descent. Linear regression models were used to investigate associations between plasma FA and markers of IR (i.e. fasting insulin, glucose, and HOMA-IR) according to ethnicity and sex.


Numerous significant associations (P < 0.05, adjusted for multiple testing) were identified between individual FA and markers of IR, with the majority identified in Caucasians. For SFA, positive associations were found between 14:0 and fasting insulin and HOMA-IR in Caucasian and East Asian populations, and 18:0 and fasting glucose in Caucasians only. Several positive associations were also found for specific MUFA (18:1t11 and 18:1t6-8 with HOMA-IR, and 18:1c9 with fasting glucose) and PUFA (18:2n6 with fasting glucose and 18:2c9t11 with HOMA-IR) in Caucasian adults only. Most of the aforementioned associations were stronger in males compared to females. Interestingly, no significant associations were found between FA and markers of IR in South Asian adults.


We report numerous associations between plasma FA and markers of IR in Caucasian and East Asian populations, but not in South Asian individuals. Furthermore, these associations appeared to be more robust in men. This demonstrates the importance of investigating associations between FA and markers of IR in an ethnic- and sex-specific manner in order to better understand the contribution of plasma FA to the development of IR and type-2 diabetes.

Caucasian; South Asian; East Asian; HOMA-IR; Fasting glucose and fasting insulin