Pet Connections


The impact of proper nutrition on the wellbeing of any animal cannot be overstated. Nutrients interact with and modify molecular mechanisms in the body affecting all aspects the organism’s physiological functions. From the fields of nutrigenomics and nutrigenetics we know that diet plays an important role in an animal’s phenotype and expression of health. Our pets evolved over millions of years eating whole foods, and their genetics are programed to manifest optimal health through the interaction with their natural, whole-foods diet. Natural nutritional therapies can be implemented to foster health in our dogs and cats. To better appreciate this approach to veterinary therapeutics we need to understand the two main nutrition philosophies – reductionist nutrition and food synergy. 

Reductionist Nutrition

Reductionist nutrition is based on reductionism which is an attempt to understanding the nature of complex things by reducing them to an analysis of their components. In other words, a complex system is nothing but the sum of its parts. Likewise, reductionist nutrition, the nutritional philosophy that is promoted in veterinary education, is the notion that foods can be fully understood by analyzing the nutrients that comprise them. So, a carrot is basically beta-carotene and the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) Pet Food Profiles yield complete and balanced diets that nourish dogs and cats.

Does this idea hold water? Well, let’s take a look at a simple nutrient, sodium chloride. According to reductionist nutrition we can understand table salt by looking at its constituents, sodium and chlorine. As it turns out, sodium is a soft, white/silver, highly reactive metal that explodes in water. Chlorine is a yellow/green highly reactive gas that is poisonous. Did you find that a helpful process for understanding salt? It turns out that the compounds that have come together in whole, unprocessed foods, provide nutritional value that cannot be accounted for by looking at the isolated nutrients involved.

This fact is demonstrated in research the looks at the effects of whole food on a body. You have probably heard that lycopene, a nutrient found in tomatoes, fights prostate cancer. Well, not so fast. It turns out that it was found that consuming tomatoes had a more robust health effect on the human prostate than did taking an equal amount of lycopene.1,2 In an interesting twist, the same idea holds true for peanut allergies. A study found that consuming the allergenic proteins of peanuts in isolation did not cause an allergic reaction in those allergic to peanuts.3 In fact, according to the NIH clinical trials of pharmaceutical-like vitamin/mineral products have found that many do not work as intended or even have adverse effects.4 Indeed, in the real-world application, the idea of reductionist nutrition is all wet.

Food Synergy

A more holistic view of nutrition is represented by the concept of food synergy. This is the idea that the biological effect of consuming nutrients in the form of the food matrix (the composite of naturally occurring food components) on biological systems is greater than, or different from, the actions of the individual food components.5 According to proponents of this nutritional philosophy, “A fundamental feature of food is that the constituents are coordinated… A person or animal eating a diet consisting solely of purified nutrients in their Dietary Reference Intake amounts, without benefit of the coordination inherent in food, may not thrive and probably would not have optimal health.”5

The “Dietary Reference Intake amounts” is basically the human version of AAFCO Profiles. AFFCO is responsible for setting nutritional standards for pet foods. Based on studies regarding nutritional deficiencies and toxicities, AAFCO determines the minimum and maximum levels of about 30 nutrients that should be in pet foods. According to food synergy scientists, relying solely on such a profile for pet food could lead to dogs and cats that are not manifesting optimal health.

There are thousands of phytochemicals present in whole (unprocessed) foods. These work together synergistically to promote health in the body. According to researchers, these nutrients “in some sense could equally be deemed essential for life [as vitamins and minerals] … It seems a good assumption that the vast majority of components of plant and animal-based food is functional, that it has some kind of biological activity.”6 

Processed pet foods are formulated based on the reductionist nutrition philosophy and this is the concept of nutrition that veterinarians are taught. Yet, a more modern, holistic understanding of nutrition, which considers the complexities of food synergy, better accommodates the genetics of our pets, and leads to better health outcomes. All our dogs and cats can benefit from natural nutritional therapies which include species-appropriate, balanced raw diets and whole-food supplements.

  1. Stacewicz-Sapuntzakis M, Bowen PE. Role of lycopene and tomato products in prostate health. Biochim Biophys Acta. 2005;1740:202–5.
  2. Boileau TW, Liao Z, Kim S, Lemeshow S, Erdman JW Jr., Clinton SK. Prostate carcinogenesis in Nmethyl- N-nitrosourea (NMU)-testosterone-treated rats fed tomato powder, lycopene, or energy-restricted diets. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2003;95:1578–86.
  3. van Wijk F, Nierkens S, Hassing I, et al. The effect of the food matrix on in vivo immune responses to purified peanut allergens. Toxicol Sci. 2005;86:333–41.
  4. NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH. NIH State-of-the-Science Conference Statement on Multivitamin/Mineral Supplements and Chronic Disease Prevention, held on May 15-17, 2006.
  5. Jacobs DR, Gross MD, Tapsell LC. Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. Am J Clin Nutr. 2009;89(5):1543S-8S.
  6. Jacobs DR Jr, Tapsell LC. Food, not nutrients, is the fundamental unit in nutrition. Nutr Rev 2007;65(10):439-50.


December 14, 2023
December 14, 2023


December 14, 2023