Food Does Not Equal Love

(Original February 15th, 2020. Updated April 22, 2023)

It was Valentine’s Day yesterday, and I made a HUGE mistake.  I worked all day in northern Louisiana, and my hotel tonight was in Pearl, Mississippi.  I had four more hours of driving ahead of me, including two stops for charging the Tesla and grabbing dinner.  After a 15-hour workday of floating 12 horses, I planned a well-deserved, hot, nutritious meal.  At my first attempt at dinner, I realized that EVERY MAN ON THE PLANET was taking their valentine out for dinner.  I concluded that food must equal love, as the sign I saw a month earlier had said above a restaurant in the Newark Liberty International Airport (see the feature image of this blog).

Not one parking space could be found near any restaurant.  Even the drive-thru lane at Panda Express went around the building.  Not judging here, but Panda Express for Valentine’s meal is setting the sights lower than maybe the date was expecting. So I settled for a turkey and guacamole wrap with spinach, olives and brown mustard at a Subway inside a truck stop.  No, I didn’t get chips or cookies and tore off ½ of the wrap.

I tried to trademark “Food ≠ Love,” but I found that Dr. Phil had beaten me to it with the expression, “Food does not equal love.”  From what I saw last night, no one is listening to Dr. Phil either.  Making matters worse, there are lots of people out there who look at preparing food as an art form.  My son is one of those who went to culinary school, is gifted in the meal preparation and has taste buds inherited from someone other than me.

Eating Is About Surviving – Period

In reality, eating food is a survival mechanism.  It is a set of survival mechanisms that switch on and off depending on how good or bad things are in our world.  For example, when things are good, such as when the temperature outside suits our ability to stay warm, the food we eat will create the energy we need, and we will not eat in excess.  When the weather gets cold, the mechanism will change when the food we eat starts to store fat, and we seem to remain hungry all the time. Through this mechanism, the body ensures the addition of excess calories to hold more fat to survive winter.  If we ever start living in an environment with less oxygen than expected, another mechanism is activated that assures our survival.  This is the mechanism used by cancer cells that live in a slightly lower oxygen environment to survive and grow on sugar.

It all boils down to sugar.  But with so much said about it, we all need clarification about what it is.  And then it does taste good too.

The Environment Triggers The Path

In a nutshell, when everything is good, and there is little stress in life, the fuel used by us and by our horses is glucose which is burned by the mitochondria in the cell to make energy. Of course, there is a cost to this, as there is with everything in life, so we rest, allowing our mitochondria to rebuild the materials needed to make more energy (ATP).  This avoids mitochondrial exhaustion, and no illnesses occur.  In essence, the body adapts to both good and bad environments.

When the environment changes, signaling that hardship is coming (winter cold and a lack of food), a large amount of glucose is taken in that far exceeds our daily needs.  This is normal.  The glucose is then converted into another sugar called fructose by ripe fruits that animals eat.  Both sugars have the same amount of elements (6 carbons, six oxygens and 12 hydrogens) but are put together differently.  This difference signals a different metabolic pathway to becoming activated.  That signal activates the use of an enzyme called fructose kinase to break down fructose, and the purpose of this triggered pathway is to 1) add body fat, 2) slow the normal mitochondrial metabolism (exhaustion) and 3) decrease the effectiveness of the satiating hormone leptin.  The result is that our horses are always hungry, out of energy and getting fatter.

Are There Other Sources Of Fructose?

In humans, it is worse because there is a 50:50 mix of glucose and fructose in table sugar.  When liquified, this mixed sugar has more fat-making effects (sugar in soda or coffee, high fructose corn syrup) than in a solid form (cookies or a candy bar).  Horses usually don’t ingest fructose unless they can access fruit such as apples or the fructans of growing spring grass.  But this next part is new and essential to understanding.  Researchers have recently discovered that fructose is made by humans and other tested animals (not tested in horses).  Because this discovery has been made in various other animals, I will assume it could be true in horses too.  What does this assumption mean?

If horses convert excess glucose into fructose, could Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS) be caused by the excess feeding of foods high in glucose?  This would include grains, hay (last summer’s grass) and summer grass. But, more importantly, these are being fed throughout the year, signaling to the horse that hardship is ahead and to store more fat, exhaust the mitochondria, consume the body proteins (breakdowns and disease) and be constantly hungry.

And Then There’s Uric Acid

In animal studies, when fructose is made from excess glucose intake, one result is an elevation in uric acid. This leads to kidney inflammation, hypertension, and pancreatic islet cell inflammation, which results in decreased insulin production and increased blood glucose (diabetes).  Conversely, giving a drug that inhibits fructose kinase prevents the formation of uric acid, resulting in normalized blood pressure and blood insulin levels. The conclusion is that glucose doesn’t cause these diseases, but fructose and its survival metabolic pathway do. Therefore, sugar isn’t the problem – the EXCESS sugar converted into fructose is the problem.

Fascinating to think about where we are today in human research and frustrating to know where we are in horse health and its relation to nutrition.  But as long as we think that food equals love, we will continue to get poor health from our horses. So I think it is time to embrace this: 

Food ≠ Love

PS – the future will bring more details on sugar’s role in mitochondrial exhaustion, chronic protein deficiency and the possibility of intermittent fasting in horses as a treatment for high insulin levels, high ACTH and EMS/obesity in our horses.

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      1. Hi, I have a question. I want to know if you all heard about the new Nutrenna supplement. Proelite Topline. It has 50 percent protein and other vitamins that horses don’t get in their diet. I would like to know what your thoughts on this product. Thank you

        1. Horses should eat a variety of ground cover plants, water and have access to mined salt and a protein source supplying a broad variety of amino acids to replace any amino acid loss from feeding excessive amounts of glucose and having a limited pasture. If this doesn’t make sense then read about chronic protein deficiency and mitochondria metabolism in my other blogs. This is all they need. The minerals can be found in the water and forage and the vitamins are made by the healthy gut bacteria.

          Here is the copied list of ingredients from their site and below that are some comments.

          Soy Protein Isolate, Calcium Carbonate, Magnesium Oxide, Dicalcium Phosphate, Monocalcium Phosphate, Soybean Oil, L-Lysine, L-Threonine, DL-Methionine, Choline Chloride, Ground Flaxseed, L-Tryptophan, Dried Whey Protein Concentrate, Natural and Artificial Flavors Added, Yeast Culture, Vitamin E Supplement, Ferrous Sulfate, Iron Amino Acid Complex, Zinc Amino Acid Complex, Zinc Sulfate, Manganese Amino Acid Complex, Manganese Sulfate, Ascorbic Acid, Biotin, Thiamine Mononitrate, Vitamin A Acetate, Dried Bacillus Licheniformis Fermentation Product, Riboflavin Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Cobalt Sulfate, Ethylenediamine Dihydroiodide, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Niacin Supplement, d-Calcium Pantothenate, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Copper Sulfate, Dried Trichoderma Reesei Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus Acidophilus Fermentation Product, Dried Lactobacillus Casei Fermentation Product, Dried Bifidobacterium Thermophilum Fermentation Product, Dried Enterococcus Faecium Fermentation Product, Copper Amino Acid Complex, Folic Acid, Selenium Yeast, Dried Bacillus Subtilis Fermentation Product, Cobalt Glucoheptonate, Sodium Selenite, Dried Kelp, Hydrolyzed Yeast, Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Sulfate, Sodium Citrate, Citric Acid (a Preservative), Sodium Metabisulfite (a Preservative), Brewers Dried Yeast, Soy Lecithin.

          Why not just soybean meal? – less expensive, all the essential amino acids, well accepted and efficient.
          Why calcium carbonate (an antacid)? Why Mag oxide (to calm your horse?)? Why dical- and monocal- Phosphate?
          SB oil – to lubricate the pelleting machine but inflammatory to the guts of humans and I would assume horses.
          Lysine, Threonine, Methionine are the limiting AA’s but they are in SBM. So is tryptophan.
          The rest? Whey is nice but is it necessary when SBM works and is a horse appropriate legume. If it was the more expensive isolate then OK but concentrate means there are other dairy proteins and sugars in it.
          The rest are unnecessary for horses. The reasons I have stated in other blogs.

          Please see this blog:

  1. I’m perplexed about what to do with this information. I recently saw a brief interview where a physician mentioned intermittent fasting as potentially beneficial. But who defines what IF is, especially in horses? Is it enough to just be educated? Even feeding simply is complicated. What variables are taken into consideration? Our horses don’t live in the wild where some version of fasting occurs naturally. Most of us have limited land and space for them to wander, especially in boarding scenarios. In that environment we run into things like resource guarding, and other behavior issues that can arise in a horse that doesn’t have access to food when it needs or wants it. Management has to be considered.

    1. All good points Karen. The issue is “epigenetics.” This is how the genes of one horse respond to the environment especially food – what kind, how much and when it is fed all have an effect that for one horse may be different than for another. This is the art of horsemanship.

      The idea behind intermittent fasting (IF) is to give the mitochondria within the cells a chance to recover. Feeding sugar stresses the cell causing oxidative reactions which creates inflammatory free radicals. It also drains the mitochondria of the energy producing molecule ATP. Like all of us sleeping to recover, the cells also need some recovery time. The whole process is called hormesis and the mechanisms that clean up the cells are called autophagy and apoptosis. Switching between a high metabolic state where muscles are being built, growth is occurring and work is being done and the lower metabolic state of fasting works in all animals. In horses it is the time between abundance of ground cover for eating and the poor dormant ground cover of winter. Unfortunately when we add grain and even hay (last summer’s grass) we bypass this natural ebb and flow. The result is for some horses the development of equine metabolic syndrome (EMS).

      It has been recently discovered that in all tested animals (humans included but not horses) an enzyme is created (aldo-reductase) that converts glucose into fructose. It is fructose that is the destructive sugar that causes inflammation, fat storage, diabetes and much more. In essence the sugar fructose is the cause behind metabolic syndrome in humans, rats and other animals tested. Removing or blocking this one enzyme eliminates all of these inflammatory issues of metabolic syndrome.

      If your horse has EMS then reducing the amount of starch fed and increasing the time they are not eating may be the needed efforts to help get these horses healthy. Unfortunately we need someone with a lot of money to support this research. Don’t look to grain or pharmaceutical companies to help with this. The next best thing is for people to try a version of IF and see if it works for them. Each horse is different. But what I think needs doing is eliminate all starch of grains and grain byproducts and feed a limited amount of tested hay, water soaked hay or poor pasture for no more than 8 hours. I base this on the fact that horses chew 10,000 to 40,000 chews per day with the middle at 25,000 chews. Assuming 1 second per chew this is 25,000 seconds per day of eating. There are 86,400 seconds in a 24 hour day. 25,000 / 86,400 is 29% of the day. That is equal to just under 7 hours.

      If you are worried about gastric ulcers in exercised horses then be sure there is hay in the stomach before exercise to absorb the stomach acid. The vet on the development team for Gastro Guard told us that exercising a horse on a stomach full of hay would prevent the need of his new drug. Wow – what they won’t tell you….

  2. I agree that food does not equal love however, it can be made and served with love. I studied holistic nutrition and know that when you prepare a meal for your family, including your four legged members, and you know that it’s the healthiest, most fresh and vibrant offering you can give them, it comes from love. Keeping on top of things, staying educated and being open about new research is key too hm Doc? Since we met you our horses are healthier than ever….NO SUGAR! And I’ve lost 31 lbs. Thank you and we love you, Roxanne

  3. Doc T

    I have 6 horses that I have tried the no grain challenge with. We are now feeding coolstance, alfalfa pellets, alfalfa, and orchard grass, and salt. I plan to incorporate ground flax eventually. This diet is going amazing for all but 1 horse.

    He’s an ottb I’ve had for about 6 weeks. Super skinny, poor fella. He refuses to eat coolstance. Only interested in “inhaling” alfalfa. Kind of eats the other grass hay. Should I try soybean meal or renew gold instead? It’s so stessful when I need him to pack on the lbs.

    Second question- ( alfalfa is fed one flake am, 1 pm) my other horse don’t really ever finish their grass hay. They pick at it through the day. Why!?

    Last question I promise! One of my horses will be going preliminary this summer and beyond in the near future. Is this diet suitable for a horse that needs to be extremely fit ?

    Thank you so much for your help. Your articles are amazing!


    1. Thanks Paige for trying the no grain approach to feeding horses. Why have you not added in the soybean meal (SBM) for all of them? This source of protein will help to build the connective tissue and the hooves they all need especially the one moving on in training this summer. Adding 1 pound per day per 1200 pound horse is essential in getting the most out of your horses.

      Off the track Thoroughbreds (OTTB) are often “super skinny” due to the stress their gut bacteria have been through. They often need a year or more of green grass and no grain plus SBM to get them back. But beware when they do because they often become fat overnight due to the beginnings of Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS). Remember that some OTTB’s that are skinny are actually suffering from EMS without the body fat often foundering as a skinny horse. Adding the SBM will help this horse get better without getting him into trouble. Adding other feeds may actually harm them as your eyes become pleased with the additional weight. Fat = inflammation but muscle = healthy horse.

      I am not a fan of ground flax. There is no valid research or reason to feed this to horses and there are some saying that humans shouldn’t be eating it. I put flax in the soft seed category with the lectins of soft seeds. Until I see an actual benefit for flax I will not recommend it. The SBM will give you what you are looking for in top line development and a healthy hair coat and hooves..

      I like Coolstance for a non-inflammatory fat source especially for elder horses having trouble maintaining fat over winter but I do not recommend the Renew Gold (Coolstance + rice bran + flax) unless you cannot get Coolstance alone – again only for elder horses in winter.

      1. Thank you so much for you response; I really appreciate the advice.
        Is soybean meal a good source of carbohydrates for anaerobic exercise?

      2. I have a couple more questions I’m so sorry….just trying to make sense of it all!

        How come you don’t recommend coolstance for younger horses?

        Is there a specific brand of SBM that you recommend?

        So you’re saying SBM (and good forages) is all they need for a wholesome diet ? (I’m talking high level performance horses)

        1. Coolstance is a non-inflammatory fat source but the primary fat source is the gut microbe’s digestion of cellulose. Young horses should have enough fat from forage. Older horses with long standing gut inflammation may need extra fat for winter.

          SBM is an ingredient directly from a farm that produces it so there is no “brand.”

          Performance horses should look like Michael Phelps. Adding fat to the body is not helpful. Body fat is only for survival through winter. Performance requires amino acids for repair, glucose for glycogen replenishment and triglyceride storage in the liver for the extra energy needed. Adding weight in the form of body fat only adds to the mass they are moving forward or up. Minerals come in the water and forage. If excessive sweating occurs (excessive mineral loss) then adding minerals is needed and can come through a mined salt lick.