As usual, there are a lot of conflicting opinions bouncing around in the avian community. One that has been troubling me for a while is with relation to carbohydrates in the parrot diet. One person or site will say: “Down with carbohydrates! They turn to sugar in the blood stream! They are bad for birds!” Someone else will brag about the “healthy bowlful of grains” their bird had for breakfast.
Both are right, yet both are wrong at the same time. Yes. Carbs do turn increase blood sugar levels. But that is their function and it is not a bad thing until we make it a bad thing.
Yes. Grains are very healthy and necessary to the diet. However, too many grains results in too many calories for a captive bird to work off.
If you are confused about all the hubbub on carbohydrates, please take a minute to read this to understand how they fit into your bird’s diet…
When we eat carbs, our digestive system breaks them down into molecules of sugars that are small enough to enter the blood stream. The rise in blood sugar causes the pancreas to produce insulin that goes about removing the sugar from the blood and storing it in cells so it can be used in the future for energy.
There are three types of carbohydrates:
- Simple carbs (aka simple sugars) come from obvious sources of sugar, like candy or soda, but also refined grains, white flour (and products like bread and pasta that uses refined grains/flour), white rice, as well as fruit. These are carbs whose chemical structure is made up of just one or two types of sugar that are easily digested and absorbed, sometimes causing blood sugar levels to spike. Consider the rush of energy you get from eating sugar and the subsequent “crash” you will experience when it suddenly runs out.
- Complex carbs (aka starches) are found in vegetables, legumes and whole grains (and products like bread and pasta that use whole grains). They contain three or more sugars that are chemically linked. Because of the more intricate structure, they take longer to digest and deliver sugar to the blood stream gradually. Blood sugar levels from complex carbs maintains energy in a more regulated manner.
- Indigestible carbs (aka fiber) is the third type. It doesn’t break down enough to enter the blood stream and has no nutritional value, but plays an important role in digestion.
It is the simple and complex carbohydrates that are most relative here – obviously, complex carbs are valuable in the parrot diet, whereas the simple carbs are not. It is important to add that while fruit is a simple carb, it contains nutrients that justify it being in the diet, refined grains are largely stripped of their nutrients in processing and we should be opting for whole grains instead.
Carbs provide the majority of the energy that is needed to keep our hearts beating, lungs breathing and food digested. Carbs give us the vigor we need to keep mobile throughout the day. Carbohydrates fuel the body – the brain function depends entirely on the energy they provide. You can imagine the disastrous results of a diet too low in carbs.
Some of the misunderstanding seems to come from the idea that blood sugar equals obesity and fatty liver and clogged arteries…etc. Blood sugar is not evil. It is part of the whole process we undergo when we eat. Blood sugar rises whenever we eat food, and it is supposed to do that. As parrot owners, we are conditioned to cringe when the word sugar is used in conjunction with our parrot’s diet; but the terms sugar and blood sugar mean different things.
The same can be said about fats and salt – we cannot function without them – but the words make bird owners cower. The fact is, like carbs they are delivered to the body through appropriate diet. If you are feeding your bird properly by rotating all the possible bird-safe foods in and out of the diet throughout the course of the year, your bird is receiving all of the carbs, fats and salts it needs to remain in good health.
Moderation, moderation, moderation. Variety, variety, variety. These are the keys to a healthy diet. We have to be careful not to play with the known appropriate diet – adding things and deleting things just because someone claims that blood sugar is bad without understanding its purpose or by over-feeding a food that would have been healthy before so much of it was consumed.
If this information is intimidating to you, and I can understand why it might be, please check out our nutrition course that explains in plain words everything you need to do to provide the very best diet for your parrot: Natural Feeding.