A new study on dolphins could explain why a lack of saturated fat in our diets is increasing rates of type 2 diabetes.
The research, conducted by researchers from the National Marine Mammal Foundatio, found that without a particular kind of saturated fat in their diet, many dolphins develop metabolic syndrome.
“To better understand what may be a driver for metabolic syndrome in dolphins, we started exploring their diet, which is primarily fish,” said Stephanie Venn-Watso, head of the foundation’s Translational Medicine and Research Program.
The researchers found that levels of heptadecanoic acid, which is a saturated fat found in fish and dairy products, were lower in the dolphins with metabolic syndrome.
“Dolphins with higher levels of heptadecanoic acid in their blood had lower insulin and trigylcerides,” said Venn-Watson.
The researchers then placed a group of dolphins with low levels of heptadecanoic acid on a high-fat diet. Within six months, glucose and triglyceride levels had returned to normal.
Heptadecanoic acid can be found in a variety of foods, primarily fish, whole-fat milk, full-fat yoghurt and butter.
It should be noted that these are early findings, with more rigorous testing needed to confirm the findings. The same metabolic effects may not be applicable to humans. However, the researchers hope that the next step will be testing the hypothesis on humans. If proved correct, it could provide a way to prevent at least some cases of type 2 diabetes.
“We hypothesise that widespread movement away from whole-fat dairy products in human populations may have created unanticipated heptadecanoic acid deficiencies,” says Venn-Watson.
“And, in turn, this dietary deficiency may be playing a role in the global diabetes pandemic.”
The researchers urge people to consult their doctor before changing their diet to one higher in fat.
The findings come at a time when the role of saturated fats in our diets is being re-evaluated. For years, dietary guidelines have insisted on low intake of saturated fat, but a recent study published in the BMJ concluded that such guidelines should never have been implemented, due to a lack of conclusive research to support them.
For people with diabetes, dietary guidelines are particularly important. Traditionally, institutions such as the NHS have recommended a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet as the best way to control blood glucose levels. Increasingly, however, studies are suggesting that a low-carb, high-fat diet is more effective for people with diabetes.
The research was published in PLOS ONE.

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