Before I begin, a disclaimer: I believe in the so-called "Paleo" diet.
It's not perfect, mind you. But as diets go, it ticks a lot of important boxes: it's (1) simple, (2) relatively easy to stick to, (3) very effective at keeping your body lean, and (4) based on good science and common-sense. For these reasons, and because of their cross-over applicability to the realm of canine health and fitness, I contend that the raging epidemic of canine obesity would be virtually wiped-out in a period of months if all the dog owners in America adopted a Paleo-style approach to feeding and caring for their dogs. And in this post I'll explain why.
The gist of the Paleo diet is this: Eat the way that human beings did back in their hunter-gatherer days, before the development of modern agriculture. More specifically, eat lots of vegetables, meats, and nuts and eat little, if any, of things like processed sugars, grains, potatoes, rice, fruit, or dairy.
There are two main strands of logic behind this weird-sounding regimen. First is the idea that our bodies produce and retain body fat primarily as a consequence of our ingestion of high-glycemic carbohydrates and not dietary fats. (I won't attempt to explain the entire glucose-insulin-fat retention cycle here. But if this concept is new or dubious to you then you really owe it to yourself to do some reading. I suggest you start with Dr. William Davis' incredible best-selling book Wheat Belly and then follow the rabbit hole. Davis' book is evidence-focused but very readable and clear. It's a perfect place to start.) 95% of the Paleo diet is just about avoiding high-glycemic foods such as potatoes, rice, cereal grains, and beans. Pretty simple, right?
Perhaps, but it sounds kinda restrictive too. Until you hear the permissive part: To make up for all the starchy foods that you're cutting out, you're instead encouraged to eat plenty of high-fat, low-glycemic animal products like meats and eggs. And, because dietary fats are so satisfying, the Paleo diet doesn't end up feeling too restrictive. But because these low-glycemic foods don't spike your blood sugar, they won't cause your body to produce and retain body fat in the way that grains and potatoes do. Which is why the Paleo diet is such an effective way to lose body fat and stay lean.
And this leads to the second core argument behind the Paleo diet, which is that obesity is a disease of modernity that was essentially non-existent before the development of modern agricultural technology. Archeological records and direct observation of modern-day hunter-gatherer societies have revealed that obesity is essentially non-existent in those populations. So eating like a hunter-gatherer, the logic goes, should keep you lean too. "Eating like a hunter-gatherer," in this case, means avoiding the products of modern agriculture, which (surprise, surprise) are basically the same high-glycemic, starchy carbohydrates that are causing our bodies to produce and retain body fat through the processes described above.
And that's the essence of it. There's plenty more in the details, but that's it at a high-level. If you're interested in learning more, I've listed a few good reading references at the end of this article.
Now, I was personally compelled to try the Paleo diet after reading a good bit about it and hearing recommendations from some people whose opinions I respected immensely and who seemed to be putting the diet to very good use on themselves. The logic explained above, as revealed through all the reading I immersed myself in on the matter, also made a lot of intuitive sense to me. And, to top it all off, when I tried it myself, I really liked it. It was very easy for me to stick to it, I felt great, and it helped me shed body fat really, really effectively without reducing my muscle mass. In short, it worked (and continues to work) well for me. I'm a believer.
And the essential logic that has made me a believer that the Paleo diet is the right way for humans to eat also has also led me to believe that a Paleo-style diet is also the best way to feed dogs in order to keep them lean, muscular, and healthy.
See, not only are the two core arguments behind the Paleo diet every bit as applicable to dogs as they are to humans, but they are much more compelling when it comes to dogs.
Let's start with the first one -- the notion that eating high-glycemic, carbohydrate-packed foods like cereal grains, rice, potatoes, and beans leads to fat retention and obesity. Unlike us humans, who are still being told (wrongly) by the USDA that carbohydrates are a vital and healthy part of a "balanced" diet, the most authoritative source of canine nutritional information on the planet clearly states that dogs do not require carbs in their diet. In fact, the NRC discusses at least four separate studies of the uber-studs of the canine endurance world, long-distance sled dogs, who suffered absolutely zero ill-effects, major changes in blood parameters, or diminished racing performance when fed diets containing absolutely no carbohydrates! So the primary argument advanced by Paleo-skeptics against removing carbs from the diet -- the fear that without "carbs for energy," we'll all just keel over -- doesn't even apply to dogs. Without going into too much detail here, literally the only things that happen to dogs when they're fed carbohydrate-rich diets are (1) they produce and retain more body fat via the glucose-insulin-bodyfat cycle described above and (2) they rely more heavily on dietary carbohydrate and less heavily on stored body fat for metabolic energy. That's right, they make more fat and burn less fat. Take those two effects together and what do you have? A population of overweight pet dogs. A group of 70+ million animals where obesity is THE NORM, not the exception!
Which returns us to the second core argument behind the Paleo diet and why it's so clearly applicable to canine diets too. When it comes to humans, most hunter-gatherer societies vanished from the earth thousands of years ago. So we have to use studies of small, remote populations or archaeological records to piece together information about the diets of pre-agricultural man. And, as you might expect, that's not an exact science. Turns out that, despite our best efforts, it's not all that easy to recreate the precise details of lives lived 100,000 years ago.
But when it comes to dogs, their closest pre-agriculture genetic ancestors -- grey wolves -- are still roaming the earth. If we want to know what they eat, we don't have to do any fossil-finding or theorizing, we can just observe them directly. And smart scientists have done precisely that. And what have they found? That almost all wild wolves eat exactly zero carbohydrates. They eat free-ranging, grass-fed animals like bison, moose, and caribou. And almost nothing else.
And the kicker: the incidence of obesity in wild wolf populations is ... you guessed it ... zero!
(Okay, rant over. Deep breath.)
The bottom line is this: If we'd all adopt a bit of Paleo-style thinking when it comes to how we feed and care for our dogs, there'd be a whole lot less canine obesity in this country. And if there was a lot less canine obesity in this country, then our dogs would be living longer, happier liv... Oh, who am I kidding? You know the spiel.
Have a great weekend everyone.
Further Paleo Diet Reading: