Living under the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) “Food Pyramid” has led to a belief that this formula leads to a nutritionally balanced diet. Providing a variety of foods in the relative amounts indicated by the pyramid, and now the segmented plate, is targeted at managing chronic human conditions like heart disease, strokes and diabetes.
There is no question that a diet focused around the food pyramid is much healthier than the normal, average American diet. And no question that it would reduce the incidence of the diseases it targets. But healthier does not equal adequate. The food pyramid is a framework for ingredient selection, but not a guarantee of complete nutrition.
Without exact amounts of varied ingredients, there is no way to guarantee that individuals are meeting the National Research Council (NRC) daily amounts of each of the 40+ required individual nutrients. Adequacy of nutrients would need computer analysis of all amounts of all foods eaten every day.
This is unreasonable for most people and few American families have ever had a personal dietitian. That is why most registered dietitians recommend vitamin/mineral and sometimes protein and fat supplements. They recognize the impossibility of adequacy by simply recommending relative quantities of ingredients. The hope is that this approach is close enough to ensure our good health.
Dogs also have daily needs of 42 individual nutrients. These include total amounts of protein and fats and specific amounts of amino acids, essential fats, minerals and vitamins. The NRC and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) have identified these recommended amounts. All commercial dog food must meet these requirements.
These daily requirements are no less necessary for dogs fed homemade diets. Merely feeding a variety of meats, carbohydrates, oils, fruits and vegetables will not ensure meal adequacy. One 2013 study in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association found 95% of homemade diets listed on the internet and published in books, some unfortunately authored by board certified veterinary nutritionists, were nutritionally inadequate. Two 2012 studies in the same journal also identified these problems with homemade recipes. They cited the lack of specified brands and quantities of supplements as a major problem.
This demonstrates the extreme difficulty formulating balanced homemade diets for our canine friends. Despite the superiority of homemade to commercial diets, providing adequate nutrition is much harder than it seems. Recipes need to be carefully crafted and analyzed so that proper, specific supplementation can ensure nutritional adequacy.
The problem with nutrient deficiencies is that they are not readily identified. It may take months to years for clinical symptoms to appear. The effects of some deficiencies cannot be reversed. The symptoms are generally not specific to nutrient deficiencies so veterinarians often look to other causes rather than nutrition.
Because veterinarians are accustomed to owners feeding commercial diets that are nutritionally adequate, deficiencies from the now popular homemade diets will not show up on their diagnostic radar. Veterinarians seldom question owners about the nutrition of their dogs. Also few veterinarians have clinical competency in nutrition and have left that part of canine health to the commercial food manufacturers.
The diagnosis of nutrient deficiencies requires special tests so blood samples must be submitted with a request for the specific nutrient deficiency suspected by the veterinarian. Many nutrients lack specific tests at local laboratory facilities and tend to be very expensive. As a result, nutritional diseases can easily go undiagnosed
Those seeking to feed homemade diets should make sure the source of their recipe and supplement recommendations provides information about all 42 essential nutrients and offers detailed, transparent comparisons to NRC and AAFCO standards for dog foods.
Dr. Ken Tudor,
THE DOG DIETITIAN