What’s wrong with carbohydrates?

Dogs are carnivores that can process plant based foods; also called scavenging or facultative carnivores.  This is a subsistence mechanism.  To thrive, dogs need meat in higher proportions.

Meat is protein.  Proteins are made of chains of amino acids.  There are 20 amino acids commonly found in proteins, ten of which are essential in a dog’s diet.  Essential because the body cannot produce them independently.  Quality protein depends on digestibility and its amino acid profile.  For dogs, this means the appropriate food would have a balance of the essential amino acids in levels to support growth and maintenance, readily available through digestion.

Grains are carbohydrates that have some protein value. Grain proteins are not good substitutes for animal protein because the balance of essential amino acids is incomplete.  What isn’t protein is broken down to glucose, which goes into the bloodstream.  The more a grain is processed (cooked), the faster it enters the bloodstream as glucose.  Excess glucose, beyond what the body needs for energy, is stored as fat.  At high enough levels, excess carbohydrates create sugar-related inflammatory conditions and disease.

Usual Suspects – wheat, corn, soy, oats, rice – ingredients added to commercial pet foods in processed or by-product forms (brans, flours, gluten)

These grains grown commercially are notorious for mass production practices maximizing yield and minimizing cost:

  • genetically modified seeds (GMO) for maximum yield and pest resistance
  • storage issues promoting spoilage (aflatoxins)
  • commercial use of herbicides and pesticides (glyphosate)

This could be a whole other blog discussing the non-nutrition problems associated with these practices.  Summarily, none are healthful.

What about grain substitutes in commercial pet foods?

An article published in August 2017, PetFoodIndustry.com, stated grain-free pet foods have gone mainstream, and roughly 44 to 47% dry dog and cat foods are grain-free.

That’s good news – right?

Common alternative ingredients include white potato, peas, lentils, chickpeas, sweet potato and tapioca.

While they are high in fiber, folate, complex carbohydrates and offer vitamins and minerals, they are over used in most commercial foods, making up at least 40% of the meal.

Starches make the ingredients stick together which is essential to forming kibble – not nutrition.  Again – excess conversion to sugar equates to levels detrimental to health.

The 2016 Pet Obesity Clinical Survey results show of the 42 million dogs in the US, 34% are overweight and 20% are obese.  Fifty-one million US cats didn’t fare much better; 28% overweight and 31% obese.  And these data are slightly up from the previous year.

“I’ve been teaching pet owners and veterinary professionals for two decades, “Don’t chase a number on a scale; focus on improving quality of life and decreasing disease risk.’ What this really means is to take measures to help reduce obesity-related inflammation.”  Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT and founder of PetObesityPrevention.org https://petobesityprevention.org/news/2017/8/19/the-secret-life-of-pet-and-human-obesity

What if dogs are given a choice?

Results from a study designed to look at exactly that was published in October 2017 in the Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition.  Subject dogs were fed three different diets simultaneously, varying in carbohydrate, fat and protein composition over a 10-day period.  They were able to self-select the food they wanted.  The dogs chose the diet dominated by protein and fat, and little carbohydrates.  https://doi.org/10.1111/jpn.12794

What to do?

  • Educate yourself on ingredients and read the labels. (FidoFoodie blog post October).
  • Pay attention to portions.
  • Look for alternatives.
  • Consider foods tolerance testing.

Don’t be overwhelmed, start small, but start somewhere.

Here is a list of  ingredients to consider when shopping or making homemade treats.

Recipe booklet from Karen Becker, DVM  https://media.mercola.com/assets/pdf/ebook/pets-recipes-ebook.pdf 

Egg Substitute

1 tablespoon of either hemp powder, chia seeds or ground flax seeds with 3 tablespoons of warm water.

Coconut flour – coconut after its been pressed for coconut milk, and most of the oil is extracted; ground into a fine powder

  • Gluten free
  • Offers protein, fiber, iron, manganese, copper
  • Low in starch
  • Less calories than almond flour
  • Excellent as a thickening agent.

Because of its high fiber content, coconut flour is highly absorbent.  Use 1/4 to 1/3 cup coconut flour for every cup of wheat flour in a recipe.  Add an egg or equal portion of liquid broth, water or coconut milk.

Coconut Oil – high in medium chain triglycerides, easily digested

Lauric acid – about half the fat content in coconut oil – when broken down is effective as immune booster.  Use cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil.  Will stay in solid form at/below 75 degrees.

Almond Flour – usually whole ground almonds

  • Gluten free
  • Fewer carbohydrates and fiber than coconut flour
  • Offers vitamin E, iron, manganese, magnesium, potassium, calcium

Quinoa – ancient grain, complete protein source with all 20 amino acids present

  • 1/4 cup of quinoa produces 1/3 cup of quinoa flour
  • protein to carbohydrate ratio 1 : 4.3
  • contains ALA (alpha-linolenic acid)
  • good source of potassium

Garbanzo Bean Flour – fats are extracted, then ground to fine powder

  • Gluten free
  • Offers protein, fiber and iron
  • Low in starch
  • Excellent as a thickening agent.

Very similar to coconut flour as it is highly absorbent.  Use 1/4 to 1/3 cup coconut flour for every cup of wheat flour in a recipe.  Add an egg or equal portion of liquid broth, water or coconut milk.

Buckwheat – not related to wheat

Buckwheat groats – seed after hull is removed.  Should be cooked with liquid (water, broth, coconut milk)

Buckwheat flour – ground buckwheat hulls

  • Good source of magnesium, copper, fiber
  • Strong nutty taste
  • Even substitute with flour, but too much will make recipe bitter

Hemp Seed – high protein content, containing all 20 amino acids and a 90% digestibility rate

  • Hemp nuts/hearts – hulls removed
  • Whole seeds with the hulls contains insoluble fiber

Hemp Oil – contains 3 essential fatty acids necessary for growth, maintenance of cell membranes   Great for balancing diet when rotating proteins

  • LA – linoleic acid
  • ALA – alpha-linolenic acid
  • GLA – gamma-linolenic acid

Flax seed meal – known as a source of Omega 3

  • Source of fiber, protein
  • Source of lignans which may offer antioxidant properties


Related articles:

Roberts MT, Bermingham EN, Cave NJ, Young W, McKenzie CM, Thomas DG. Macronutrient intake of dogs, self-selecting diets varying in composition offered ad libitum. J Anim Physiol Anim Nutr. 2018;102:568–575. https://doi.org/10.1111/jpn.12794