You are what you eat!
The world has become more conscious about our food, where it’s sourced from and what’s in it. If you’re like me, you can spend hours reading food labels and researching ingredients you’re not sure how to pronounce. With worldly concerns like contaminated Romaine lettuce, antibiotics, and hormone injections, it’s understandable being a little (or a lot!) cautious in what you feed yourself and your family.
With the boom of specialized diets such as (gluten-free, grain-free, corn and soy free, vegetarian, vegan, pescatarian, etc.) our options are infinite in what we can and want to consume. If you work hard to feed your family the best and understand where your food is coming from it shouldn’t be any different for your four-legged furry family member!
All species share the same need of basic essential nutrients: water, carbs, lipids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Each animal species, however, has a select group of nutrients it can’t manufacture so the animal must obtain these essential nutrients from its diet. When animals are fed diets that contain both the essential and nonessential nutrients they require, they are able to synthesize their bodies necessary for a healthy life.
A balanced diet is good fuel for the body!
Keep in mind that the terms essential and nonessential are misleading; both are required for life. The only difference is some are manufacturable by the body while others are not.
Many animals, for example, are able to make Vitamin C from the nutrients they ingest but guinea pigs can’t. Guinea pigs must eat foods rich in Vitamin C such as fruits and vegetables or Vitamin C-fortified pellet food.
Cats can’t make the amino acid taurine but dogs can which is why cat food is fortified with taurine but dog food is not. For this reason, you shouldn’t feed dog food to cats or over time they will develop disorders such as blindness and cardiac disease from taurine deficiency.
Water, carbs, lipids, and protein are consumed in large quantities whereas vitamins and minerals are consumed in very small quantities. Vitamins and minerals, as well as amino acids, make up a smaller percentage of an animal’s overall nutrients, in comparison to its larger bulk, but most deficiencies stem from improper consumption of these smaller necessities. Personally, I start to get lost in understanding animal food labels when I get to the listing of amino acids, vitamins and minerals so let’s explore that a little more!
There are 10 essential and 12 nonessential amino acids in most species. Amino acids must be present in the diet because the animal either can’t make them at all or can’t make them fast enough to meet the body’s needs for tissue maintenance and growth. Animal products such as meat, eggs and dairy products contain proteins that include the largest number of amino acids.
- Meat products contain all amino acids for many species however animal-based protein is more expensive than plant-based protein so many pet foods contain primarily plant-based proteins, such as soy.
- Cereals, rice, nuts, and legumes, such as beans, are protein-rich but their proteins are nutritionally incomplete as they are low in one or more of amino acids.
- Leafy green vegetables are also rich in amino acids but have little methionine and tryptophan.
When consumed together, a diet of corn, grain, and legumes contains all of the essential amino acids needed by many species, including humans.
Did you know:
Dogs can actually do well on home-cooked vegetarian diets if adequate complement foods are present! Cats are strict carnivores and must consume animal proteins, as taurine is found naturally only in meat and fish, therefore should not be fed home-cooked meals without adding supplements.
AMINO ACIDS & FOOD LABELS
Pet foods often identify the crude protein content on the label of the can or bag of food. Most people assume that the best food for their pet contains the highest percentage of crude protein. But that’s not necessarily true. Dog food, for example, may have high protein content but the biologic value of the protein may be low.
*The biologic value is the percentage of absorbable protein that is available for productive body functions and the amount of amino acids available for metabolic processes.
The ideal protein content in food includes all of the essential amino acids needed to meet the specific metabolic requirements of an animal. If for example, a protein has a missing essential amino acid its quality may be low but by adding the missing amino acid the full potential of the biologic value of the protein can be restored.
This is one reason why mixed animal and plant protein sources are often complementary to each other in food formulations (Example: chicken and pumpkin medley!)
Additionally, the quality of proteins is improved if foods are not over processed or overheated in storage because heating can denature proteins.
Plants can manufacture the vitamins they require but animals can’t. Most vitamins are not made in the body and must be consumed in the diet but there are exceptions. Vitamin D is made in the skin and Vitamin K and H are made in the intestine by bacteria. The body can convert beta carotene, an orange pigment found in carrots and deep green leafy vegetables, into Vitamin A. For this reason, beta carotene is called a provitamin and is essential for many species.
If an excessive amount of vitamin is consumed, vitamin toxicity may result. Liver is high in Vitamin A, owners who frequently feed liver to their dogs or cats may unknowingly induce a toxic condition in their pets. This is why it’s important to understand what makes up the nutrients you give your animal. Having some knowledge and doing your research could save your pet a terrible or deadly stomach ache and your wallet!
Below is a table summary of vitamins, dietary sources and their importance for the body referenced from Clinical Anatomy and Physiology by Thomas Colville and Joanna Bassert.
|VITAMIN||DIETARY SOURCE||IMPORTANCE IN THE BODY|
|Vitamin B1 (thiamine)||Meat, fish, eggs, leafy green vegetables, legumes, liver||Needed in the synthesis of some neurotransmitters|
|Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)||Milk, fish, poultry, red meats, liver, eggs, grains, legumes||Needed for oxidation of amino acids|
|Vitamin B3 (niacin or nicotinamide)||Milk, fish, poultry, red meats, liver, eggs, grains, potatoes, peanuts, leafy green vegetables, yeast||Needed for the catabolism of fats|
|Vitamin B5 (pantothenic acid)||Brain, kidney, liver, adrenal, heart, grains, legumes, eggs, yeast||Needed in oxidation of fatty acids and synthesis of steroids|
|Vitamin B9 (folic acid)||Lean beef, veal, liver, eggs, whole grains, orange juice, deep green vegetables, yeast||Essential for the formation of red blood cells|
|Vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin)||Liver, red meats, poultry, fish, dairy (but not eggs), butter||Essential for the synthesis of Choline in nervous system, bone marrow and GI tract|
|Vitamin A (retinol)||Milk, fish, fish oils, liver, eggs, dark green leafy vegetables, and dark yellow vegetables||Essential for cellular generation in skin and muscles|
|Vitamin C (ascorbic acid)||Citrus fruits, tomatoes, cantaloupe, strawberries, vegetables, leafy green vegetables||Antioxidant; Needed for formation of collagen fibers in connective tissues, aids in absorption of iron and activates folic acid|
|Vitamin D (anitrachitic factor or calciferol)||Liver, liver oil, kidney, fortified milk, eggs||Essential for blood clotting, bone and tooth formation, acts as a hormone that regulates calcium levels in the blood|
|Vitamin E (tocopherols)||Wheat germ, nuts, whole grains, vegetable oils, green leafy vegetables||Antioxidant; Prevents oxidation of unsaturated fatty acids and cholesterol|
|Vitamin H (biotin)||Liver, eggs, nuts, and legumes||Essential for reactions in the Krebs cycle|
|Vitamin K (quinones)||Leafy green vegetables, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, pork liver||Essential for generation of clotting factors|
Minerals are inorganic substances that are essential for life and work with other nutrients to ensure the body functions normally. Minerals are classified as macrominerals, microminerals, and trace elements.
Macrominerals include calcium, chlorine, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium and sodium. Calcium and phosphorus are the most abundant minerals in the body. Both, along with magnesium salts, harden the teeth and form the rigid, hard material that gives bone its strength. Sodium and chlorine are the primary electrolytes found in blood. They are vital for maintaining normal oncotic pressures in the body and for assisting in water absorption in the kidney.
Microminerals include copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc. Iron is one of the most vital microminerals because it helps molecules carry oxygen in red blood cells.
Trace elements include chromium, cobalt, fluorine, molybdenum, nickel, silicon, sulfur and vanadium. You’ve probably heard of fluorine because of how important it is in healthy teeth!
No matter how much or how little an animal needs every factor is crucial for complete homeostasis. A balanced diet for your pet is vital to maintaining their overall health but above all understanding how nutrients work for their bodies is the first step! It gives you knowledge on what and how much to feed your pet and further control over understanding labels and what they truly mean for your best friend. Working together with your veterinarian or dietician and doing the research guarantees you’re setting your fur-baby up on the right track to a long and healthy life. Remember, “You are what you eat!”