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Nutrition Nuggets
Your cat's nutrition is important for a healthy & happy life. petMD experts help you to know what to feed your cat, how much food to feed, and the differences in cat foods, so your cat gets optimum nutrition.
Nutrition Nuggets is the newest offshoot of petMD's Cat Nutrition Center. Each week Dr. Coates will use her expertise and wisdom to blog about the intricacies of cat nutrition.

Phytonutrients and Antioxidants

August 10, 2012 / (2) comments

There seems to be a movement these days toward the inclusion of what I’d call "non-traditional" ingredients in cat foods. Cranberries, apples, peas, carrots, broccoli … what role could fruits and vegetables like these possibly play in a cat’s diet, beyond marketing?

I think the answer lies in the fact that fruits and vegetables are wonderful sources of phytonutrients and antioxidants, which begs the question, "What are phytonutrients and antioxidants?"

Phytonutrients are biologically active compounds that have a potential health benefit. This field of study is really in its infancy, but evidence is mounting that, in humans at least, carotenoids (e.g., from carrots and broccoli), polyphenols (e.g., from apples and cranberries), and other phytonutrients can help prevent some types of cancer, protect against heart disease, enhance the functioning of the immune system, and more.

Many phytonutrients are also antioxidants — compounds found in food that can break down free radicals. Free radicals are a natural end-product of metabolism, but production of these destructive molecules often increases to dangerous levels when the body is stressed by illness, exposed to toxins, etc. Free radicals are "missing" an electron, and when they come into contact with cell membranes, DNA, proteins, or other cellular structures, they will "steal" an electron from them. This process damages the donor molecule, often causing it to turn into a free radical itself and thereby continuing the cycle. Antioxidants break this chain reaction by “donating” an electron and neutralizing free radicals without becoming free radicals themselves. Vitamins A, C, and E, carotenoids, and selenium are all powerful antioxidants.

One of the benefits of including natural ingredients like fruits and vegetables in the diet rather than relying solely on supplements is that one ingredient can bring multiple nutrients to the table. Take broccoli, for example. Broccoli is rich in carotenoids, vitamin C, thiamine, riboflavin, folate, calcium, phosphorus, potassium, and fiber. While all these nutrients could be added to the diet via supplementation, nutritionists typically recommend that, whenever possible, we meet our nutritional needs though eating real food versus the use of supplements. Including fruits and vegetables in cat food doesn’t eliminate the need to use supplements to create a balanced diet, but there may be some health benefits associated with natural sources of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that we don’t yet fully appreciate.

Hopefully more research into how phytonutrients and antioxidants can improve feline health will come with time. Meanwhile, I seen no harm  — and some potential gain — in feeding cats a food that contain fruits and vegetables as long as it is provides optimally balanced nutrition in all other ways as well.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: JJ Studio / via Shutterstock

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Comments  2

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  • 08/11/2012 11:49pm

    So glad seeing this article here! Been just learning about this recently; yes, I put fresh vegies in Jasmine's diet, some raw for good measure (parsley, cranberries, celery, zucchini)

    Kind of undecided about the raw fruits added to other ingredients; some sources claim that this leads to unwanted fermentation.

  • Nature's Diet
    08/13/2012 07:14am

    I'd love to see a whole lot of research on fruits and veggies being added to cat's diets.

    While some cats will eat these items voluntarily, many will not and I have doubts that cats in the wild have many fruits and veggies in their diet.




Photo of Jennifer

... graduated with honors from the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. In the years since, she has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia, Wyoming, and Colorado. She is the author of several books about veterinary medicine and animal care, including the Dictionary of Veterinary Terms, Vet-Speak Deciphered for the Non-Veterinarian .

Jennifer also writes short stories that focus on the strength and importance of the human-animal bond and freelance articles relating to a variety of animal care and veterinary topics. Dr. Coates lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with her husband, daughter, and pets.

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