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Low Carb Dog Food: What are Its Scientific Health Benefits?

After going on keto and learning how excessive carbs cause diabetes, I started wondering if the same health risks apply to my dog.

The answer is yes. In this article, I want to share the scientific research that suggests a low carb diet is healthier for dogs.

Low Carb Benefits

Avoid health risks · High carb fillers like rice and potato are used in dog food to reduce cost, but they also lead to health issues including diabetes and obesity.

It may affect you · New research suggests that if a dog has diabetes, there is an increased risk that its owner will too. A study of 208,980 dog parents showed those who had a dog with diabetes had a 38% greater likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes themselves.

Improved lifespan · Our low carb recipes offer a vet formulated species-appropriate diet shown to improve several health biomarkers associated with increased lifespan.

The controversy

Have you ever read the ingredients in dog food? You'd think it was 90% meat by the way it's advertised. However, the nutritional label tells a different story.

Dog food is a medley of ingredients—from chicken, eggs, beef liver, carrots to pumpkins—even seaweed finds its way into our recipes. All of these ingredients provide essential nutrients when included in the right amounts.

But when included in excessive amounts, carbohydrates should be of concern to health conscious pet parents. If you look at the Guaranteed Analysis on a pet food label, carbs can make up to 70% of the recipe.

In this article, I'll provide growing evidence that low carb dog food may offer health benefits to exted your dog's lifespan.

In fact, we believe there's sufficient research to suggest a carbohydrate level greater than 30% of a dog's diet can lead to diabetes, obesity, thyroid disease and more.

But not everyone agrees.

Most other dog foods—yes, even the fresh brands—are packed with high carb fillers like rice and potatoes. The reason is obvious: profit. Carbohydrates are a cheap filler ingredient to bulk up their dog food.

But are we right? Is low carb dog food best for dogs? And if so, what are the health considerations?

What's considered low carb dog food?

Before we dive in, let's establish some basics. There are three types of macronutrients in food: protein, fats and carbohydrates. It's the ratio of these three macros that determine the nutritional profile of any dog food.

Even though dogs are known as carnivores, they actually eat all three macronutrients in the wild. Dogs are actually classified by scientists as omnivores—naturally eating berries, wild fruits and vegetables. Essentially, anything they can scavenge.

That said, the ancestral canine diet contained very limited carbohydrates. A dog's predecessor, the wolf, has a diet consisting of 54% protein, 45% fat and only 1% carbohydrates [*].

While dogs can benefit from nutrient-rich complex carbs like broccoli or carrots, simple carbs that need to be cooked like rice or potatoes are not naturally eaten.

Yet commercial dog foods often contain 40% to 70% carbs in their recipe. Even worse, they're often simple carbs like rice and potato that provide minimal nutritional value.

The best low carb dog foods have a much lower carb content—less than 30% carbs to start—and often as little as 10% to 15% net carbs. By reducing the carb content, there's more room for nutrition-dense foods that don't spike blood glucose levels.

Why high carbs are dangerous

Many people believe all calories are the same, but research over the past decade proves that's inaccurate [*].

For instance, 350 calories from fat and protein have minimal impact on blood glucose, whereas 350 cal from ½ cup sugar would cause a dangerous insulin spike.

Did you know: carbohydrates are simply chains of sugar molecules.

Even broccoli is digested down into sugar molecules (plus some beneficial nutrients we'll discuss later).

After your dog eats carbs, insulin is produced to transport them to cells for energy. But when too many carbs are in your dog's body, an overflow occurs that stores them as fat.

If your dog is overweight, it's possible they have too many carbs in their diet.

What carbs are added to dog food?

Some plants like broccoli, carrots and other vegetables provide a valuable source of nutrients. These all contain highly digestible vitamins and minerals needed to stay healthy. The nutritional benefits outweigh the carb content. 

But here's the thing: there's no real biological reason for dogs to consume lots of carbs. No primordial dog was snacking on wheat, rice or potatoes.

So, why do many dog food companies add it in?

The most basic reason is cost. Whereas meat, liver and fats are expensive—grains are cheap. They're an easy filler for pet food manufacturers.

Added simple carbs such as wheat or rice to a dog's diet will provide energy. But there's growing evidence it just isn't quite as healthy [*].

Canine diabetes is up 79% since 2006, 56% of dogs are now classified as obese and almost half of dogs over the age of 10 will develop cancer.

Moreover, maximizing the amount of muscle meat, liver and nutrient-dense vegetables improves the overall nutrition—including packing in more vitamins and minerals—and even boosts your dog's metabolic health.

What are the health effects of a high carb diet?

Hold up! If dogs worldwide mostly eat a high carb diet, surely we'd know about the downsides.

We should. There's been substantial research into the topic:

Effects on blood sugar

In a preliminary study, three diets were compared in dogs. Then, various biomarkers, including insulin and glucose levels, were tested postprandially (after the meal). The diet was fed to each dog for three weeks. The results were clear: after eating a high-carb diet, the postprandial glucose level remained substantially higher. Even worse, in some dogs, levels of glucose, insulin, and triglycerides took over 12 hours to return to baseline [*].

This study potentially implicates high-carb diets in the onset of diabetes. It also raises concerns, as high levels of blood glucose damage the kidneys, eyes, and smaller blood vessels.

Effect on weight loss

In other research, high-protein low-carb (HPLC) diets have been recommended for tackling dog obesity. The diet is suggested to increase weight loss by "promoting the metabolism of body fat without a reduction in caloric intake" [*].

The findings mirror similar studies in people.

There, low carb diets increased satiety – the feeling of fullness – reducing the desire to keep eating. There's even a further possibility that low-carb diets stabilise blood glucose levels, preventing the blood sugar drop after a high-carb meal that causes hunger [*]. They lost weight on the HPLC diet, despite not eating any fewer calories.

With obesity associated with diabetes and liver disease, low carb foods may indirectly reduce the incidence of such diseases.

Energy release

Perhaps the most pronounced effect of high carbs is felt in working dogs. Being active throughout the day, working dogs are reliant on a good, healthy diet. Yet one study found that while the blood's total insulin and glucose concentration did not differ between high-carb and low-carb diets at baseline, their concentration spiked after a high-carb meal [*].

It's this spike in glucose and insulin levels that's concerning. Especially in diabetic dogs who already may struggle to maintain glycemic control.

And that's only the effects on blood sugar and insulin.

Lipids and thyroid hormones

A 2019 study also found implications for thyroid hormones and lipid profiles. The authors had a simple hypothesis: a diet rich in fats and proteins would yield better thyroid and lipid levels than a carb-rich diet [*].

They were right! Across all biomarkers, the fat-protein diet produced greater results. Indeed, the diet even aided with prolonged light exercise—that could help weight loss in obese dogs.

Our petition

Of the 3 macronutrients that exist, only protein and fat are required to be listed on pet food labels. Carbohydrates are surprisingly missing...

It's not by accident and makes it difficult to understand how many carbs are in dog food.

We're working to change that. If you think carbs should be listed on pet food labels, please consider signing our Honesty in Pet Food petition.

Sign The Petition

The bottom line

Ultimately, all owners want to feed their dogs a nutritious, healthy diet. However the research shows how calories are not all the same.

Despite being a source of calories, simple carbohydrates are linked to disease when consumed in high quantities.

With the evidence stacking up that means only one thing—if you want your dog to live as long as possible, a low carb diet is preferable.

While we focused more on the science in this article, a low carb diet also aligns better with a dog's ancestral diet—it's how they were built.

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