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

Have you ever read the ingredients in dog food? You'd think it was all meat, by the way it's advertised.

Surprisingly, dog food is a complex medley of ingredients, from chicken, eggs, beef liver, carrots, pumpkins – even seaweed finds its way into the recipe.

There's just one set of ingredients that stand out: carbs. Indeed, there's growing evidence that low carb dog food may have numerous health benefits to extend the lifespan of dogs.

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, kidney disease, and more.

But not everyone agrees.

Most other dog foods – yes, even the fresh ones – 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 even is low carb dog food?

Before we dive in, let's establish our terms. All commercial dog foods contain three types of nutrients: protein, fats, and carbs. It's the ratio of these three basic macros that determine the broad nutritional profile of a given dog food.

Even though they're known as carnivores, dogs actually eat all three nutrients in their wild diet. Dogs are actually omnivores – even 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 fairly varied diet: 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 usually eaten.

Yet, commercial dog foods can contain as much as 40% to 70% carbs.

The best low carb dog foods have a much lower carb content: less than 30%, maybe even as little as 10% to 15%. By reducing the carb content, there's more room for nutrition-dense foods.

What carbs are added to dog food?

Some plants like broccoli, carrots and other vegetables provide a valuable source of nutrients. These all contain 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 [*].

Moreover, using meats, liver and nutrient-dense vegetables improves the overall nutrition—including packing in more vitamins and minerals—and even boosts your dog's performance.

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.

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.

Even though it's a source of calories, simple carbohydrates are linked to disease if 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 will be a beneficial part of it.

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.

That's why if you want your dog to live as long as possible, we believe in feeding your dog a low carb diet. It's what we feed our own dogs too.

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