What Does Balance Mean to You?

What Does Balance Mean to You?

As pet parents, we all want the best for our furry companions, and a key aspect of their well-being revolves around their nutrition. When it comes to the concept of balance, it's essential to dive deeper and understand what it truly means for our pets. So read on and we'll unravel the intricacies of balanced feeding, exploring the standards, challenges, and the journey to finding the ideal diet for your pet.

Marketing and convenience in the pet food industry have led to so many misconceptions about what is considered a balanced healthy diet. The fear-inducing tactic of labeling kibble as the only suitable option for pets has left many pet owners apprehensive about exploring other feeding alternatives. It can be daunting to step away from a simple scoop of what we believe is a balanced product, but with so many dogs and cats presenting with frustrating health symptoms, more and more pet parents are leaning away from highly processed extruded kibble foods. And that leaves them asking…how do I feed a fresh and balanced meal?

The Notion of Balance

When asked about balanced pet food, many of us may think of AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control) Officials standards because we see it most often on pet food labeling. Veterinarians often emphasize AAFCO standards, which focus on essential nutrients and amino acids. However, it's crucial to question what balance means on a broader scale. Similar to our own diets, pet nutrition can also be viewed as balance over time, ensuring the intake of necessary elements daily-weekly-monthly for thriving health.

In the realm of pet nutrition standards, the National Research Council (NRC) once held the industry accepted gold standard. However, as times changed, AAFCO emerged as a more up-to-date authority, more frequently revising its standards. The significance lies not just in adhering to these standards but understanding the nuances of micronutrient bioavailability, a key factor often overlooked in the pet food industry.

AAFCO does not directly test, regulate, approve, or certify individual pet foods to make sure that they meet the standard requirements. Instead, they establish guidelines for ingredient definitions, product labels, feeding trials, and laboratory analyses of the nutrients that go into pet foods. Overall it lacks enforceability and stringent requirements. In addition, pet food manufacturers can claim their products are complete without adhering to AAFCO standards, leading to a somewhat unregulated market.

Feeding trials conducted by pet food manufacturers to meet AAFCO standards may not provide a comprehensive evaluation of a pet's well-being either. They have a limited duration of six months, a small sample size of 8 dogs or cats (only 6 need to make it to the end of the trial), and focus on only 4 individual blood markers. This raises questions about the effectiveness of these trials in truly assessing a pet's response to if a food is creating health or not.

Atwater Tables: Decoding Bioavailability

Enter the Atwater Tables, a method used to estimate the energy content of pet food by assigning standard caloric values to macronutrients like protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

The Atwater system was originally developed in the late 19th century by American chemist W. O. Atwater for human food. It assigns fixed energy values to macronutrients based on the assumption that all protein, fat, and carbohydrates provide the same amount of calories per gram, regardless of the food source. This original Atwater system doesn't take into account variations in bioavailability, which is the measure of how efficiently the body can absorb and utilize nutrients from a particular food. For example, the bioavailability of a micronutrient like vitamin C in pet food can be affected by whether the food is raw, cooked, or heavily processed as in the case of kibble. The Atwater Tables were not designed to account for these variations in micronutrient bioavailability due to processing.

In the context of pet nutrition, bioavailability becomes crucial because pets, like dogs and cats, have specific dietary requirements for essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. The bioavailability of these nutrients can vary based on factors like food processing methods, ingredient sources, and the specific form of the nutrient in the food.

Kibble manufacturers, facing challenges in meeting micronutrient levels due to heavy processing, have sometimes used what is known as Modified Atwater Table. This means they assume a certain percentage of nutrient loss during processing and adjust their formulations accordingly. However, these modifications might not accurately reflect the actual bioavailability in high processed pet foods like kibble. Understanding the difference between the original and modified tables is important to understand when creating a balanced diet for your pet. Fresh feeding, particularly raw diets, significantly impacts pet health. Blood values differ between raw and kibble-fed pets, showcasing the profound effects of a fresh, unprocessed diet on their organs and overall well-being.

DIY Feeding: Navigating the Pitfalls of Unbalanced Diets

The rise of fresh feeders has brought forth various approaches, with an 80/10/10 mix (80% meat & bone, 10% organ, 10% vegetation) often being the go to option among DIY feeders. While this method may not technically meet AAFCO or NRC standards, with the right mix of organs and meat quality,  it comes close to balanced when plugged into nutrition calculators, but not quite.

The goal of this type of feeding style is to mimic the diet of a wolf in the wild, finding balance over time. With each prey kill a wolf would eat a ratio of meat, bone, and vegetation (in the stomach contents of its kill) close to percentages of 80/10/10. While this diet has been around for decades with dogs thriving, health can take a turn when quality and ratios are altered, or rotation of various proteins is not included. The shift towards cost-effective, lower-quality meats poses challenges, impacting the balance and nutritional value of these diets.

Often at the start people will feed really nice whole foods with their 80/10/10 mixes. What frequently happens is people get comfortable and start tweaking the ingredients in the interest of being very cost conservative. They begin buying really cheap meats. Or they buy frames based diets (the left over carcass after the human consumption meat has been removed). Suddenly we're not seeing 80/10/10 feeders thriving the way they used to. The difference is that when you go and take the leftover frames of chicken for example, there is just not enough meat content there. The ratio is no longer 80/10/10. Now bone ratios are way up and fats and proteins are out of whack. Your micronutrient profile also suffers. This does create an imbalance. We see a lot of pets who do okay on this type of imbalanced diet for awhile, but over time, the body starts to suffer from this lack and the dog or cat starts to turn their nose up at the food. Their body knows this food is not nourishing. They are in survival mode instead of thriving.

When defining balance in pet diets, quality becomes paramount. The source of meat, calcium and phosphorus ratios, and adherence to basic nutritional principles matter. While AAFCO or NRC guidelines are useful references, a common-sense approach is essential, especially when dealing with real, human-grade ingredients.

When diving into DIY pet meals we cannot stress how important it is to work from a properly formulated recipe. Engaging the services of a recipe formulator service like the one we have at Pet Grocer, helps you navigate the balance of nutrients for your pet and their unique health needs. At Pet Grocer we also make use of those original and modified Atwater Tables we mentioned earlier, allowing us to calibrate your pet’s recipe based on whether you are feeding raw or cooked meals.

Pre-made Options - Finding Balance at The Pet Food Store

Most people are interested in pre-made options. The convenience of kibble without all the unwanted health challenges that come with a kibble diet. Manufacturers have been rushing to fill that need for decades. Fresh food options abound! Now your challenge becomes finding well sourced foods that are actually meeting those overall balanced needs. Again - we must look to the quality of the meats and other ingredients along with the processing. Ask your store if they can explain each manufacturer that they have on their shelves or in their freezer. Do they know what quality certifications that manufacturer has? Are they using human grade meats? How much lung is being put in the diet? Do the staff even know why knowing the lung percentage is important? Do they know what diets are frames based vs meat based? All of these ultimately impact your pet's overall wellness. We know that good quality, balanced foods do better for the body. After finding a few good quality pre-made brands, the next key to ensure the ultimate in thriving is to rotate your proteins. This helps us ensure the body is getting a variety of micronutrients over time.

Individualized Approach: The Ultimate Key to Balance

In the quest for balance, it's essential to remember that every pet is unique. What works for one may not work for another. Evaluating a pet's health indicators, such as coat condition, breath freshness, and stool quality, provides valuable insights into the suitability of a chosen diet. Having annual wellness bloodwork performed by your veterinarian is another powerful tool. Each animal has their own 'normal' and having year over year numbers enables you to view if your animal is showing a pattern of a blood value creeping up or down over time, giving you a great opportunity to catch a body challenge before it is a full disease state.

Balanced feeding is so much more than meeting predefined standards. It involves understanding the individual needs of your pet, sourcing quality ingredients, and navigating through the marketing hype. As pet parents, our ultimate goal is to see our furry companions thrive, and that begins with a well-balanced, nutritious diet tailored to their specific requirements.