Grain-free pet food is all the rage, trending right up there with human food fads, which include Gluten-Free, Paleo, and the Wheat Belly Diet. Everyone wants to avoid carbohydrates. Is choosing a grain-free pet diet really giving you what we all want, a healthier pet? Certain carbohydrates should be avoided, but some are really beneficial for dogs. Let’s think about spring-cleaning our pets’ bodies with that fabulous carbohydrate: fibre!
Some commercial dry pet foods contain up to 70% carbohydrates even though dogs can make their own carbohydrates out of protein and fats. Even canned pet food usually contains carbohydrates to reduce the ‘free water’ in the can (so that it feels more solid when you shake it). The main reason for this is cost. Plant-based carbs are less expensive and more readily available energy sources than proteins and fats. The starchy carbs used to add structure and texture to kibble creates a shelf-stable product, making it possible to ship it all over the world. The cost benefit flows to you, the consumers too. Cheaply made, inexpensive pet food has become the norm, creating an industry, and a lot of spoiled consumers who balk at paying the true cost of a healthy diet for their pets.
The great difference among carbohydrate types is important to understand that as each type has a unique effect on your pet’s health. Most people are familiar with sugars and starches but it’s more complicated than that. Carbs can be divided into two categories:
Simple carbohydrates include sugars – sucrose, lactose, fructose – that break down quickly and are readily absorbed in the small intestine and converted into glucose. This is the basic nutrient required by all the organs of the body for its energy needs. Simple sugars are found in fruit, honey and sugar cane, for example. They’re tasty, but as we all know, too much is unhealthy, and can be deadly.
Complex carbohydrate may be further categorized into Starches and Fibre. Starches take more time to break down, requiring enzymes from the pancreas and intestinal wall before they can be absorbed and utilized. These carbs are the ones most often used in pet food. Starches come from the cell walls of a variety of plants including (a) grains, especially wheat, rice, corn, barley and oats; (b) vegetables such as potatoes, sweet potatoes and peas, and (c) beans including tapioca and soy.
A whole range of foods contain starches, with some breaking down quickly into glucose (watermelon) and some more slowly (pumpkin). How quickly the starch breaks down and is absorbed into the bloodstream is what gives a carb its Glycemic Index (GI). Several factors influence a food’s GI including whether and how it is processed, ripeness (for fruit), how much the food is chewed and how quickly it is swallowed, and the fibre, acid and fat content. Foods with a high GI can potentially flood the bloodstream with glucose, raising the blood sugar level in the animal, wreaking havoc on the pancreas as it tries to keep up with producing insulin, the hormone required to resorb that glucose from the blood into the tissues and organs that need it. Eating a diet high in these kinds of starches and simple sugars (think breakfast cereal) is the basis for many chronic diseases which stem from the digestive system working so hard to absorb, digest, store and eliminate the products of all that glucose: diabetes, heart disease, inflamed bowel, obesity, and liver disease.
Fibre: The Good News
The other category of complex carbs is Fibre, and it’s the saving grace in any argument in favor of feeding carbohydrates to dogs. Actually an ‘empty’ carb because it offers few actual nutrients, it provides amazing service instead. Fiber types are either soluble or insoluble.
It forms a gel when mixed with liquid, binding with fatty acids, which in humans is especially helpful for lowering cholesterol. It helps prolong stomach emptying time, which slows the release of sugars, preventing large glucose and insulin spikes for diabetic dogs. Fibre is invaluable for regulating the transit time of the bowels. It will absorb water, helping to relieve diarrhea, and because it holds water, it also relieves constipation
It exits the body in pretty much the same shape as it entered, since it does not dissolve in water. Most complex carbohydrate sources will contain some insoluble fiber, the most common for pet foods being vegetable peels, beet pulp, peanut and soybean hulls, bran, cellulose and apple pectin. This fibre increases bulk in the colon, passing through like a bottlebrush, collecting toxic debris along the way. And fibre helps dogs feel full, which is really helpful for maintaining healthy weight.
Fibre quality makes a difference since some are fermented by intestinal microbes (bacteria) in the gut, affecting the water-holding capacity and bulk of the stool. For instance, slowly fermenting fibres (cellulose, peanut hulls) maintain their structure longer and thus hold more water, making them the better choice ingredient for a dog tending toward diarrhea. Rapidly fermenting fiber (apple pectin, soy) can produce a laxative effect. The over-use of cheap processed grain in pet food is one of the reasons for the epidemic of diabetes we have now among our pets. Feeding a diet high in good quality fibre can help control the swings in blood sugar that accompany this chronic disease by slowing digestion and absorption of starches. Whole grains that contain the bran, germ and endosperm of the grain kernel, which break down more slowly due to their outer fibrous hull, are therefore a quality carbohydrate for animals, especially those with blood sugar issues. Brown rice will have a very different effect on your dog than milled corn, for example, which has been stripped not only of its fibre but of its minerals too, especially B-vitamins.
Fibre is only found in plant foods, especially grains and seeds. Flora4 Ground Sprouted Seed mix contains a combination of soluble and insoluble fibre that performs beautifully as a 100% natural aid for diarrhea, constipation, and gas. Ignore the fads. A carefully selected diet containing whole food ingredients, including whole grains is a budget-friendly dietary choice benefitting your pet’s health that provides excellent nutrition per kilocalorie. And with all that fibre it will have your pooch’s insides clean as a whistle this spring.
MARIA RINGO G.GS, DHMHS – BIO
Maria Ringo is a homeopathic practitioner and co-founder of Carna4 Hand Crafted Dog Food, a small, ethical company producing synthetic-free whole foods for pets; and Sojourner Farms, one of the first commercially available raw food diets for dogs. She lives in Toronto, Ontario with her family and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org