Eat Like a Dolphin to Fight the Diabetes Pandemic

A new study shows that a saturated fat found in fish lowers the marine mammal’s levels of blood glucose and triglyceride—both associated with the disease.

(Photo: Roland Weihrauch/Getty Images)

Jul 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

We’ve been told to keep the pounds off and the cholesterol down by staying away from the rich, creamy goodness of full-fat yogurt, whole milk, and butter. But people could learn a thing or two from the role dolphins’ diet plays in preventing disease, according to a new study.

The research, published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One, found that a certain saturated fat found in fish—and fat-filled dairy products—could aid in reversing metabolic syndrome, or prediabetes.

In humans, metabolic syndrome—identified by high blood-sugar levels, high blood pressure, and a 40-inch-plus waist for men (35 inches for women)—is a precursor to type 2 diabetes.

Scientists recently discovered dolphins can quickly go in and out of diabetes-like states—and that they too can develop metabolic syndrome. Because dolphins only eat fish and squid, Stephanie Venn-Watson, lead study author and director of clinical research for the nonprofit National Marine Mammal Foundation, started looking at what was in those fish.

“Metabolic syndrome is already affecting one in three adults in the United States, and if we can understand how dolphins can reverse their levels through their diet, it could be the first step in understanding how removing certain fats can actually negatively affect our health,” said Venn-Watson.

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“There’s been research that shows a higher fish diet in humans keeps you from developing metabolic syndrome and other papers that aren’t so conclusive on it,” she added. “So we wanted to look at what types of fish the dolphins were eating and what types of fats they were getting from those fish, to see if that had an effect.”

The team started measuring fatty-acid blood levels of 49 dolphins enlisted in San Diego’s Navy Marine Mammal Program—the marine animals the Navy trains to sniff out sea mines—and 19 wild bottlenose dolphins in Sarasota, Florida.

They then examined how 55 types of fatty acids in various fish types—including capelin, squid, mullet, and pinfish—affected the dolphin’s insulin levels.

After six months of research, one fatty acid—a saturated fat—stood out. It’s called heptadecanoic acid (C-17), and when dolphins showing signs of metabolic syndrome ate fish that contained a lot of it, the levels of insulin, triglycerides, and ferritin in their blood normalized.

So, Why Should You Care? For years, saturated fats have been on most nutritionists’ “avoid” lists. But the findings could show that the systematic removal of certain fats from the human diet is having the opposite effect. The C-17 fat common in the dolphin diet is found in dairy products such as yogurt, milk, and butter but is removed when we process nonfat versions of the stuff.

“There’s more and more evidence emerging that shows that not all fats are bad for us,” Venn-Watson said. “We’re not saying go eat spoonfuls of butter, but this could show that we’re not getting the levels of C-17 that we’re used to.”

If that fatty-acid deficiency in humans is having the same effect that it can have on dolphins, then a lack of dairy fat could be playing a role in the world’s diabetes pandemic.

Linking dolphin diet to human diabetes is a stretch, Venn-Watson acknowledged, but NMMF has already partnered with children’s hospitals around the U.S. to see if kids with metabolic syndrome and diabetes are showing low levels of C-17.