Is the Atkins Diet Right For My Horse?

No, the Atkins diet is not healthy for your horse.

         The goal of the Atkins diet in humans is weight loss.  This is done by decreasing the amount of carbohydrates consumed.  The problem is there are different types of carbohydrates…and horses need certain types of carbohydrates (so do humans).

          What are the different types of carbohydrates?

          I am going to keep this explanation brief and generalized - it can get very technical.

         Plants convert the sun's light in to sugar - the process is called photosynthesis.  There are 2 basic types of sugars within the plant: simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. There are also 2 classifications within these types: soluble and insoluble.

           SIMPLE CARBOHYDRATES (monosaccharides): contains 1 or 2 molecules of sugar.  They are the building
           blocks for complex carbohydrates.  Simple carbs are soluble (non- structural).

           COMPLEX CARBOHYDRATES (disaccharides and polysaccharides): contain 3 or more molecules of sugar.

                     Disaccharides: 2 simple sugars (monosaccharides) linked together.  They are soluble.

                     Polysaccharides: many complex sugar molecules linked together.  Starch, fructan, and cellulose are
                     examples.  Starch and fructan are soluble.  Cellulose (fiber) is insoluble.

           What is the difference between soluble and insoluble?

       Soluble carbohydrates break down quickly and can cause a spike in blood glucose levels.  They must be digested in the small intestine where the proper enzymes are present - if they get pushed in to the large intestine colic and laminitis can result.
           Some horses have a problem with soluble carbohydrates.  The spike in the blood glucose level causes them to be "hot" or full of energy.  These feeds are considered to have a high glycemic index.

            Insoluble carbohydrates are digested in the large intestine, changed to volatile fatty acids (which is then used for energy) and do not cause a spike in blood glucose levels.

             So, you are saying:  horses need carbohydrates?

             Yes.  If we make a general claim that all carbohydrates are bad then we wouldn't be able to feed (or eat) anything.
             So, I do not recommend the Atkins diet for horses.  Horses need insoluble carbohydrates to keep the digestive system working properly.  I do recommend limiting starch while providing a balanced diet.   

             Can you recommend some feeds that would be low in soluble carbohydrates?

         Most reputable feed manufactures are now offering products which are low in starch.  They use fat as the energy source.
            Fat is 2.25 times more energy dense than carbohydrates.  It is digested in the small intestine. If some gets through in to the large intestine no long term detrimental conditions result - they may get diarrhea or loose stools.  Just cut back on the amount being fed.  Follow the feeding directions of the product.
           Fat also does not cause a spike in blood glucose levels.  So, an excitable horse may benefit from one of these products.
     You might notice a glossier healthier looking coat.  There may be some weight gain.

             Is forage always low in soluble carbohydrates?

            Unfortunately, not.  At certain times the plant contains high amounts of fructan.  Fructan is a soluble complex sugar.  Temperature, time of day, and moisture content can affect the amount of fructan in cool season grasses.
             Fructan is at its lowest level early in the morning.  As the sun's rays intensify the levels rise. 
             Soaking hay can lower the amount of fructan present - it is water soluble.  Mowed hay that was rained on (which we usually try to avoid), then dries slowly before baling will be low in fructan. Just make sure it is not dusty or moldy.  The horses won't like it as much as premium hay, but certain "couch potato" types will be better off eating it.
Eleanor Richards
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