The relationship between SFA consumption and the risk of overweight/obesity remains unclear. Epidemiological evidence is lacking among Chinese population. This study aimed to investigate the association between individual dietary SFA intake and the risk of overweight/obesity in Chinese adults. Data from 8465 adults with BMI < 24 kg/m2 at entry in the China Health and Nutrition Survey (1989–2011) were analysed. Three-day 24-h dietary records were used to collect dietary data. Cox proportional hazards regression models were constructed to estimate hazard ratios (HR) and 95 % CI for the risk of developing overweight or obesity. A total of 3171 incident cases of overweight/obesity were identified (1649 for women and 1522 for men) during a median of 11 years of follow-up. Compared with the lowest category, the intake of total SFA (TSFA) showed no significant association with the risk of overweight/obesity. However, an increased risk of overweight/obesity was observed with a higher intake of medium chain SFA (MCSFA) (Ptrend = 0·004), especially decanoic acid (10:0) (HR was 1·25 (95 % CI 1·10, 1·42) comparing the highest category with the reference group; Ptrend < 0·001), whereas an inverse relationship was observed for hexanoic acid (6:0) consumption; compared with non-consumers, 6:0 intake was associated with 32 % lower risk of overweight/obesity (HR: 0·68 (95 % CI 0·56, 0·84); Ptrend < 0·001). Overall, the intake of subtypes of MCSFA but not TSFA was associated with the risk of overweight/obesity. Increasing hexanoic acid (6:0) and limiting decanoic acid (10:0) consumption may be protective for overweight/obesity among Chinese population.