What is caloric density and why is it important to my cat’s nutritional health?

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Caloric density is simply a measurement that compares the amount of calories with the nutrient count of that particular food. For instance, fatty and sugary foods are often referred to as “empty calories,” because they have a lot of calories—and few nutrients—in a food product. You are getting no nutritional benefit, while only adding calories.

On the other hand, items like fruits and vegetables are considered to have lower caloric density, because you can eat quite a lot of them and still consume relatively few calories. They are high in nutrients, whereas cake and other fatty foods are not. Another way to look at this is to compare soda with something like kale, a nutrient powerhouse. You can drink 100 calories of soda, but that wouldn’t even touch the nutrient count of 100 calories of kale.

Studies have shown that diets based on low calorie density foods tend to be more healthy and effective for weight management. That being said, it makes sense that you would watch the caloric density of cat food very carefully, because you want to be sure your cat is getting the maximum of the required nutrients, without packing on the added pounds or compromising its health.

First, you need to know the weight of your cat. In general, an active cat requires 20 to 30 calories per day per pound of healthy body weight, while an inactive one requires 18.

Next, it’s important to really examine the guaranteed analysis for composition (the percentage of protein, fat, and carbohydrate in the food). The guaranteed analysis numbers that you find on a can of food for protein, fat, and water (moisture) are listed as minimums and maximums.

You’ll want to be sure the protein and fat sources are specific, such as chicken, fish or chicken fat. Explore the ingredient list—the protein source should be the first ingredient and may be followed by an organ meat (high in taurine). For carbohydrates you want to see whole grains, like brown rice—not fillers. Then, you’ll see fat (again, a specific source). Following that will be vitamins and minerals. Vitamin C (calcium ascorbate) and/or Vitamin E (alpha tocopherol) are often added as preservatives, along with other vitamins and minerals. Finally, make sure to look for taurine, an essential fatty acid for cats.

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