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against the grain: dr. ernie ward discusses grain-free diets

Grain-free, no-grain, and low-grain have been buzzwords in the health-conscious human diet community for the past twenty years or so. Supporters of reducing grains in the diet cite numerous health benefits – from easier digestion to decreased inflammation.


While there is no consensus on the value of grain-free diets among human nutritionists, consumers have made their choice known by spending billions on these foods. The grain-free diet debate is now moving to the pet food aisle.


There are currently more than 3,500 grain-free products available for pets. The number of choices has grown about 33-percent over the past year. The reason grain-free products are growing rapidly is simple: pet owners want them. Grain-free pet food sales soared 28-percent in 2013; from September 2012 to September 2013, American pet owners spent $1.7-billion dollars on grain-free pet products.*  The vast majority of veterinary nutritionists disagree that grain-free is healthier. Who’s right?


My long-time opinion is to feed a low-or no-grain diet whenever possible or practical. My rationale is the research seems to indicate a lower-grain diet can help reduce systemic inflammation in dogs and cats, my personal greatest physiological foe.


Inflammation is the root of most of the body’s maladies; keeping inflammation at bay is a critical step in sustaining health. This doesn’t mean a pet is only fed meat; it means we look for healthier formulations. This is only my opinion and many veterinary nutritionists at universities and pet food companies will disagree. That’s okay with me. In the end, we’re given one life and must make decisions we believe will enhance and prolong the time we’re given. Argue away; unless I see clear evidence one way or another, I choose to reduce inflammation in any way possible.


What the grain-free pet food trend really signals is the humanization of animals. “We see the growth of grain-free foods – and natural pet products generally – as part of a larger trend toward humanization of pets,” said Maria Lange, Senior Product Manager of GfK’s Retail Sales Tracking team. “Consumers are clearly comfortable splurging on pets they see as valued family members, not just everyday animals.” I agree with many pet owners.


Whether or not you feed low- or no-grain foods to your pets is a personal decision you should make with your veterinarian. Grain-free diets cost roughly 45-percent more than “regular” foods with grains, according to GfK. That number seems a little high to me, but better food is usually more expensive.


I’m excited that pet owners have more choice in what they feed and how they treat their dogs and cats. Nutrition and diet are intensely personal topics that demand more than cookie-cutter approaches. More food choices mean more dietary personalization. No one has the “perfect diet” or the magic pill.


Nutrition is more art than science, and we’ve got a long way to go in our understanding the specifics of how food affects health and longevity. Until we have more evidence, talk with your veterinarian about the best food choices for your pet. It’s the least we can do for our forever friends.     


*according to market data research company GfK


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Posted by Jane Casale
on November 21 2015 14:44

Switched my dog to grain free to stop him from having yeast infections in his ears. It worked - his ears have been yeast free for several years now.

Posted by William Logan
on November 18 2015 19:26

We had no choice in the matter. Our English Bull Terrier was always sick and at the vet because of the grain in his diet. Inflammation in his bowels, hot spots on his skin. You name it he had it until we switched his food to grain free. I believe it's about your dog. If they can eat food with grain. Feed it to them. If not look for a diet that works.

Posted by Cassandra
on November 18 2015 17:27

I've feed my dogs a grain free diet since I've had them because first, I thought it healthier and more "back to nature" and secondly, one of my dogs was diagnosed with allergies shortly after I adopted him as a "teenager". He has been receiving steroid shots every month because of his allergies. When this began, the vet told me after time, his liver levels would begin to increase because of the impact of the steroids overtime. He told me to expect four or five "good years" of quality of life vs suffering crippling allergies. Well- it's been over FOUR years and my vet has been SHOCKED at his wellness exams every year that his levels are always PERFECT - better than dogs not getting shots. It's like we never gave him any shots, the countdown clock never started! If you read about dog's liver issues - to prevent levels from rising, you have to keep inflammation down and eat a high protein diet. I never knew that but all this time, I had been feeding my babies a perfect preventative diet to counteract the steroids he had to take. As a result, A GRAIN FREE DIET HAS DIRECTLY PROVEN TO HAVE EXTENDED MY DOG’S LIVE CONSIDERABLY by absorbing the steroid toxins somehow! I’m not a scientist but I know that it’s the only thing that can explain why his levels haven’t risen AT ALL when they were supposed to be nearing toxic levels by now! I can’t ever be thankful enough for the fact we went grain free and invested in quality food! I feed my dogs Blue Buffalo Wilderness Large Breed Dry, Blue Buffalo Wilderness Canned Dinner, and Blue Buffalo Canned Stews. Turkey/Chicken and Salmon (Salmon to help with their coat issues although I know it has a bit too much metals in it than I’m supposed to give my baby with liver issues – but haven’t had a problem.) I have a #100 White German Shepard and a #65 Mix Breed American Staffordshire/German Shepard

Posted by Jeffrey Weinstein
on December 15 2014 15:52

My vet has always recommended the Science Diet for my 3 cats. They all like the dry Science Diet food, but the cans they will not touch. So, I leave the dry food out all the time and feed them (3 cats) 2 cans of Friskies divided by 3 each day, one can in the morning and one at night. Is there a better alternative? I would love it if they would eat the science diet wet food, but even though I gave it to them for a full week, only 1 of the cats would even nibble at it. I want to do the right thing, but I also don't want to serve them food they hate. Is there a better alternative? I'm not wealthy by any means, but I would be happy to spend a little more for better wet cat food. My cats are not "just cats" or "just pets" they are my beloved family members and I want them to be healthy and happy.

Posted by Debbie Royalty
on March 04 2014 16:11

I tried a lot of foods, tryig to find one that would keep my dog from itching. I narrowed it down to either grains or chicken that was causing it. I went to a grain free duck formula and it stopped her itching. I have recently bought grain free chicken and the itching did not return. So I will keep my goldendoodle on grain free to avoid itching.

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