Variety in Balanced Diets

In the raw and home cooking world of pet foods, there is a lot of discussion about balance and variety – whether variety, or rotating proteins and other ingredients in necessary for balance.

Defining a Balanced Diet

tl;dr: The discussion about variety in this article only refers to diets balanced to the nutritional guidelines set forth by the NRC, AAFCO or FEDIAF. It does not apply to BARF, PMR or other ratio (80/10/10) diets.

First, let’s define that a “balanced” diet is. In this article, we’re assuming a “balanced” diet is complete and balanced to a scientific, nutritional standard like those set forth by the NRC, AAFCO or FEDIAF. (For a discussion on the reliance and use of these standards in homemade pet foods, please see this article by Savannah Welna).

These standards set forth a minimum requirement for cats and dogs at different life stages (growth, gestation/lactation, adult maintenance) for essential nutrients – minerals, vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids. These requirements are based on scientific feeding studies and include considerations about bio-availability in ingredient types and processing methods.

If a diet is balanced to one of these standards, it has been formulated so that it is:

  • complete: it contains the minimum required amount of essential minerals, vitamins and fatty acids
  • balanced: the quantity of essential nutrients is not excessive and interactions between nutrients has been accounted for

This can include commercial foods, recipes made by nutrition professional or recipes made by the owner.

So, Is Variety Important?

The short answer is yes – the ideal diet includes some variety.

The long answer is a bit more complicated. In theory, if the food was perfect for your pet and 100% reliable, you would not need variety. However in reality, even complete and balanced diets have varying levels of nutrients and the amount of quality control and accurate analyses depends on the source.

Commercial Diets

If your pet is currently eating a AAFCO/FEDIAF formulated diet, the first thing you need to determine is if the company is trustworthy.

The hallmark of a trustworthy company is one that is open about their sourcing, the consistency of their ingredient list, quality control and the frequency of nutritional analysis.

Even if the company uses an appropriate statement from AAFCO/FEDIAF, it can be helpful to follow up with their customer service. If a company does not analyze (submit samples of their product for nutritional testing) their products, this is usually a sign that the company may not be able to guarantee the nutritional adequacy of their products. Especially if a company uses different ingredients from batch to batch – this will affect the nutritional content of the food. One batch may be complete and balanced, and the next may not be.

When feeding a complete and balanced commercial food, make sure that you trust the company. You can rotate proteins and brands to minimize any risks, but it may not be necssary.

Homemade Diets

If your pet is currently eating a homemade, raw or cooked, diet, it’s likely that the food (or every batch of food) has not been analyzed for nutritional content. When making your pet’s food at home, variety can be more important due to a few different factors.

1. You Are Using Estimated or Unknown Data

For many raw feeders in particular, commonly used ingredients like raw meaty bones, may not have reliable, widely tested nutritional analysis. If you are using estimated data (such as the Raw Fed & Nerdy RMB Estimated Analyses) or formulating with ingredient without any known data, there is a large degree of unknown in the recipe.

If your recipe includes estimated or unknown data, I recommend rotating the sources of affected minerals, such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus from raw meaty bone. For example, if you are using estimated data for chicken necks, don’t use chicken necks in every recipe. Alternate with different RMBs, or rotate with a boneless recipe using a supplement with reliable nutritional analysis.

2. You Are Using Ingredients Significantly Different From Analyzed Samples.

This can be a big factor for those who try to source local or pasture-raised/organic/grass-fed ingredients for their pet food. While this may be a more sustainable, ethical way to source meat ingredients, it also means you are using ingredients different from the analyses you may be using. Nutritional analysis from the USDA Food Database is usually from commercially, traditionally raised animals. These differences can result in differences in the nutritional content of the ingredients.

Meats that are from significantly older animals, or animals fed a non-typical diet, can also lead to these nutritional differences in the end product. Especially for raw meaty bones, older animals will have different bone densities and composition, leading to differences in the mineral content of the RMB depending on the age of the animal.

Analysis of foods grown in different regions, or different countries, will vary in nutritional content as well. Different regions have different weather patterns, soil and environments, which can all affect meat ingredients.

If you are sourcing non-traditional ingredients, keep these factors in mind. Depending on the degree of unknown, I recommend rotating the main ingredients of the recipe every few months. If using RMBs from older animals, try to formulate with ample “wiggle room” around the requirement and rotate with an ingredient with a more reliable source.

3. Natural Variance

There will always be some natural variances in foods, even if sourced, grown or obtained in the same way. The nutritional analyses we consider reliable are composites of multiple samples – any individual sample will differ from the analysis. This variance will be much smaller than the two factors mentioned above (estimated/unknown data and significant different ingredients) but should still be considered.

There isn’t much we can do to limit this natural variance, but we try to minimize the affect it has in homemade pet food by formulating with “wiggle room” to keep these variances in mind and generally rotating our critical ingredients. Critical ingredients are your most nutrient-dense ingredients in the recipe – such as organs, raw meaty bones, and fish sources.

tl;dr: Variety Is More Important for Homemade Recipes

At the end of the day, when formulating or preparing recipes are home, it’s generally more important to rotate ingredients in the recipe. The idea is that we are not completely dependent on the same ingredients when there is a greater likelihood that that the food we feed our pets is significantly different in composition than we expected.

This is certainly not to say that a homemade NRC balanced diet is going to significantly different in the bowl than on paper – but that there is a greater probability.

If you make your pet’s recipe yourself, it’s important to consider these factors when you are formulating. More nutrient sensitive conditions, such as clinical cases, should try to use as reliable ingredients as possible, which may mean that supplements with reliable testing and analysis may be preferable to whole foods with less reliable data.

In Conclusion

When discussing variety and rotating proteins/recipes, it’s important to make sure that any food we are considering if complete and balanced to a scientific standard. From there, when feeding commercial food, it’s important to select a brand that is trustworthy in quality testing, sourcing and ingredient selection, so that rotation is not necessary. When making your pet’s food at home, variety and rotating critical (nutrient-dense) ingredients is more important because of the lack of nutritional analysis.

So, is variety important? For every case – every food bowl and pet family – it depends. Choosing to rotate ingredients, choosing variety, is about juggling different probabilities and unknowns. When dealing with picky pets, allergies or clinical cases, these unknown factors may be insignificant compared to the very real, very certain factors in the pet before us.