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Dogs Can't Live on Meat Alone

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How many times did your parents beg you to eat your vegetables? Or bribe you? Maybe even threaten? They were just trying to make sure that you got a balanced diet that included all the vitamins and nutrients that vegetables and other plant foods bring to the table. 

And now, as a pet parent, you know how they felt all those years ago. Making sure your dog is eating as healthy as possible is a hard, but rewarding, job. 

As you know, at Nom Nom we believe that nutrition is the best preventative — and sometimes curative — medicine. So, today we’d like to talk to you about fruits and vegetables. 

Your old nemesis could actually do your dog’s body good. 

Dogs are omnivores

Unlike their feline frenemies, dogs have the ability to eat and digest both animal-based products and a variety of plant-based foods. While wild cats get their grains from the stomach content of their prey, dogs can and should enjoy a diet closer to yours. Fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and seeds all play a role in non-domestic canine diets. 

Recent diet fads have suggested that dog owners prefer meals consisting of meat, offal and bones with little-to-no plant-based ingredients. Proponents claim health benefits based on anecdotal observation over scientific evidence. This has led many to view plant-based ingredients as fillers, or indigestible inclusions with inferior nutrient compositions. 

This is simply not true.

Don’t worry. No matter what brand you’re feeding your dog right now, all commercial foods sold in interstate commerce are required by law to meet the nutrient standards established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO). 

But if you’re making your own dog meals, it has been shown that many home-prepared recipes out there that rely primarily on animal-based ingredients do not meet the minimum recommended requirements for calcium, zinc, copper, potassium, magnesium, manganese, and vitamins A and D. 

Plants are great sources of vitamins and minerals

Let’s say we put Dog G (represented by the gray bar on the chart below) on an extreme diet that only contains turkey meat and skin. That poor animal would be getting less than 100% of their recommended intake of calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, zinc, folate and vitamins A, B1 and D. Without the minimum requirement of these ten essential nutrients, Dog G could develop deficiency symptoms with serious effects to his health.

However, if we replace just 10% of the calories in this diet with different plant ingredients, the amounts of some nutrients increase significantly and it may be even possible to meet the recommended minimum. We use spinach (green bars), mushrooms (tan bars), and peas (brown bars) as examples to show that plant-based ingredients can be included in a dog’s diet as sources of essential vitamins and minerals. 

Some plants are better at providing certain nutrients than others. For example, spinach is a great source of calcium while mushrooms and peas are not. Mushrooms are unique in that they are sources of copper and vitamin D. This complexity is why designing a diet that is both nutritionally balanced and appetizing to dogs is very challenging. 

A variety of ingredients, as well as fortification and supplementation, are key to a well-balanced diet meeting the recommended nutrient allowances, and it is important that this practice be carried out by a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. And there are fewer than 100 of those in the US. (HINT: Our Nom Nom Chief Nutrition Officer is one.)

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Plants are also great sources of phytonutrients

Phyto-whats-its? More than 25,000 compounds naturally present in dietary plants have been identified. They’re collectively called phytonutrients — more commonly known as dietary fibers, carotenoids, polyphenols, phytosterols and more. 

Phytonutrient class Dietary source
Fibers

 Fruits and vegetables such as kale, spinach, carrots, and sweet potatoes

 Whole grains such as brown rice, wheat bran, and oat bran

 Legumes such as peas, lentils, and beans

 Nuts and seeds such as almonds and sunflower seeds

Carotenoids

— Green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale

— Orange/yellow fruits and vegetables such as yellow squash, carrots, and sweet potatoes

 Red fruits and vegetables such as watermelon and tomatoes

Polyphenols

 Berries such as cherries, blueberries, and strawberries

 Citrus fruits such as oranges and tangerines

 Soybean products such as tofu and tempeh

 Nuts and seeds such as sesame seeds and flaxseed

 Colorful fruits and vegetables, including some herbs

Phytosterols

 Nuts and seeds such as almonds and peanuts

— Plant oils such as wheat germ oil, corn oil and flaxseed oil

Phytonutrients can sometimes be found in the form of food additives. For example, inulin, which is a type of dietary fiber that is a prebiotic, is often used as a food additive to modify the texture of kibble. Carotenoids 𝛃-carotene and astaxanthin, both antioxidants, are often used as food coloring because of their unique orange and pink color.

What we know (and what we don’t know) about phytonutrients

In researching a recent article we authored that’s been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, we’ve conducted an extensive review on scientific literature and published studies on phytonutrients’ measured health outcomes. What we found was that they improve measures of body weight/condition, cardiovascular health, gut microbiome and gastrointestinal health, immune health, bone and joint health, renal health, skin and coat, visual health, and cognitive health. 

But, there is currently not enough data to suggest and establish minimal intake requirements of these nutrients for survival. Even though it’s clear that phytonutrients support health in many ways, they are often termed “nonessential” nutrients by health professionals. Which, again, is not to mean that they’re not beneficial. Just that we need further study to determine how great those benefits — and the minimum intake to achieve them — are.

How much phytonutrients is my dog eating?

We know that phytonutrients play an important role in health maintenance and disease prevention. However, currently we still don’t really know how much phytonutrients dogs are eating on average. 

The amount of intake is likely dependent on diet, treats, and dietary supplements. 

We also know phytonutrients can be destroyed when food is heavily processed, especially with high heat treatments that occur during the processing of many kibbles. On the other hand, light cooking can break down plant cell walls and increase the absorption of phytonutrients, supporting the benefits of feeding lightly-cooked over raw food. 

For phytonutrients that are fat-soluble such as carotenoids, adding even a little amount of cooking oil or fish oil can also increase the absorption significantly.

For dog parents

Vegetables and plant-based ingredients have gotten a bad rap when it comes to dog food. But there’s no need to send your pup to bed without their dinner. To ensure that your dog is fed a nutritionally balanced diet, make sure to consult with a board-certified veterinary nutritionist. (Or, you know, feed them a nutritionally balanced meal like Nom Nom that’s been developed by one.)