The grain free pet food craze has stuck in my craw as an integrative veterinary medical practitioner for years, but the final straw for me to post this article was a 5 year old female Labrador Retriever that presented for her well visit a few days ago. The previous year at 72 pounds, I had listed her as overweight and recommended “portion control, and/or weight loss diet, increased exercise to facilitate weight loss.” The owner had asked me for dietary recommendations at the time and I gave her a few options.
This year, my Lab patient not only failed to lose weight, but presented at a whopping 84 pounds, progressing her body condition from overweight to “morbidly obese.” The owner was noticeably frustrated, so I asked her which diet she had chosen. As it turns out, some time after last year’s visit, a friend of her’s convinced her that grains were the root of obesity and most other diseases that occur in dogs, and that her best way to get weight off her dog would be to put her on a grain free dog food. When the owner saw the pretty wolf on the bag and its fantastic label claims, then even saw that the diet had its own TV commercial airing during prime time, she was sold…and succeeded only in transitioning her dog from a fat dog to an obese dog.
This grain free pet food craze that is pulling pet owners in hook, line and sinker, reminds me of the fat free craze in the early to mid 90’s. The thought process was that if fat is eliminated from food items, we could eat the things we wanted and stay lean. Like the grain free pet foods, the opposite actually occurred and people eating fat free foods only found themselves getting fatter and less healthy.
The problem was that in order to take the fat out of cookies, muffins, etc., sugar was added in its place to maintain its taste appeal and consistency. Sugar, or glucose, is absorbed and utilized much more readily as an energy source than fat, resulting in the intake of a food additive that resulted in a great deal more calories per unit volume than fat.
Like the fat free human foods of the 90’s, grain free pet foods are also commonly loaded up with glucose to make up for the lack of grains. But the grain free pet foods are even worse, because without the grains, the foods lack adequate amounts of soluble fiber. Why is dietary soluble fiber important? There are several reasons!
Soluble fiber unlike simple carbohydrate is not itself absorbed by the gut, but attracts water as it passes through the gastrointestinal tract. This helps to control hunger by filling the bowel and contributes to regularity by bulking the stool, thereby facilitating bowel health and increasing the basal metabolic rate. Soluble fiber also reduces the reliance on simple sugars in the diet, offering the pet more stable blood glucose metabolism, reducing obesity, and reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes, pancreatic disease, and other diseases.
Truly, the only thing that is impressive about grain free pet food companies is their marketing departments. With images of wolves and wildcats and proclaiming that your domestic pet should be fed more like its wild ancestors, the message is resonating with millions of pet owners. Let us set aside from for one moment that our domestic dogs and cats are different from their wild ancestors physiologically and metabolically (that is a whole other topic for another day), I am quite certain that after killing their prey, a pack of wolves did not add a pound of sugar to their fresh kill.
Dr. Roger Welton is a practicing veterinarian and highly regarded media personality through a number of topics and platforms. In addition to being passionate about integrative veterinary medicine for which he is a nationally renowned expert, Dr. Welton was also an accomplished college lacrosse player and remains to this day very involved in the sport. He is president of Maybeck Animal Hospital , runs the successful veterinary/animal health blogs Web-DVM and Dr. Roger’s Holistic Veterinary Care, and fulfills his passion for lacrosse through his lacrosse and sport blog, The Creator’s Game.