In our last few posts, we disected popular pelleted diets and examined why feeding a grain-based diet isn’t the best route to follow for your parrots’ health. In this post, we’ll take a look at the downfalls of “mash” diets.
So-called “mash” diets take many forms, but they all have one thing in common: they’re based on cooked legumes and grains. The typical mash diet is comprised of 30-50% cooked grains and legumes (usually recommended in a two parts grain to one part legume ration for a “complete protein”), 40-50% veggies and fruits, and the remainder is various amounts of pellets, dry or sprouted seeds, and supplements. They’re touted as healthier and in some cases, complete diets that provide birds with important enrichment that they’re just not going to get with monotonous pelleted diets. And it has always been recommended that mash diets be finely chopped – preferably in a food processor – so that birds can’t pick out their “favorite” bits.
We already know that grains aren’t the best choice for your parrot’s base diet, but what about cooked beans? And what’s all this about “complete proteins” and making sure our birds get them at every meal? What about monotony?!
It’s probably fresher, but it’s not necessarily healthier.
The first – though not the most obvious – problem with these “mash” diets are that they’re too high in phosphorus, especially if fed as the sole diet, the base of the diet, or as part of a diet based on grain-filled pellets. Parrots need a calcium to phosphorus ratio of 1:1 to 2:1. So if you’re feeding a “mash” diet comprised of 50% cooked mixed legumes and grains, 30% veggies, 10% fruits, and 10% pellets and supplements, you’ll have to convince your parrots to actually consume 1-2 times the amount of calcium rich foods for every bean they eat – if he eats a tablespoon of carb-rich beans, you need to make sure he actually consumes 1-2 tablespoons of calcium rich greens (or the equivalent of an avian calcium supplement.) Not an easy feat for the average bird owner.
The second problem – and by far the most obvious one – is that mash diets are based on cooked grains and legumes, and in case anyone didn’t notice, parrots don’t cook. They couldn’t even if they wanted to. Parrots can’t eat dry beans because of trypsin-inhibitors and other “anti-nutrients.” So why feed them a diet based on cooked foods that are wholly unnatural, and potentially toxic to them in their raw form?
Bean-based diets also have a skewed protein and carbohydate ratio, with an average of 8-12 grams of protein in every half cup cooked serving. A quarter cup of mixed cooked grains has an average of 4 grams of protein. So one cup of mixed cooked beans and grains contains about 14 grams of protein. If you mix equal portions of spinach, collards, broccoli, and green peas to make an a total of 2 cups, you’ll have added about another 7.5 grams of protein, for a grand total of about 11 grams of protein in a cup.
It’s my understanding that birds are capable of consuming 15-20% of their body weight daily, and it is generally accepted that parrots need 10-15% of their daily calories from protein, depending on a variety of factors including species, age, activity level, and reproductive status. As an example, a 400 gram African Grey will consume up to 80 grams, or just under 3 ounces, of food each day. That’s about 5.5 tablespoons. There are about 16 tablespoons in a cup, so this 400 gram Grey will consume about 1/3 of a cup of food each day. If half of that 1/3 cup is beans and grains, than 1/6 of a cup of our prepared bean/grain/veggie mix, there will be approximately 4 grams of protein.
We know from studying human nutrition that a gram of protein contains 4 calories, a gram of carbohydrate contains 4 calories, and a gram of fat contains 9 calories. That 1/6 cup of cooked beans and grains is going to contain about 30 grams of carbohydrates or about 120 calories just from carbs, with a measley 12 calories coming from protein, and a whopping 36 calories from the 3 or so grams of fat contained in the bean/grain mix. Just to clarify, 3 grams of fat is about 5% of the recommended daily allowance for fat in a 2,000 calorie diet for an adult human. 30 grams of carbohydrates is about 10% of the recommended daily intake for an adult human on a 2,000 calorie diet.
A 150 pound human weighs approximately 67,950 grams. Assuming that this human is an average 5’5″ female in her mid 20’s, she would need appriximately 2,000 calories to maintain this weight. See where I’m going with this?
Companion parrots – biologically designed to consume large amounts of raw foliage and fruits – rarely have the opportunity to fly in captivity, and even those that do have the opportunity don’t fly anywhere near as much as their wild counterparts, burning far fewer calories by default. And we, thinking that we’re doing the best by them, fill them with unnatural, carb and fat-rich cooked foods, clip their wings, and wonder why they “misbehave.”
As if that weren’t bad enough, an abundance of calorie-rich foods has been demonstrated to induce breeding behaviors, and since so many of us are in the habit of providing them with a no-work-required dish full of warm, calorie-dense food (far more than they could ever consume at once), we leave them in a constant state of arousal with a strong desire to find a mate.
Are you still wondering why so many companion parrots are fat and angry?
Now, cooked whole, human-grade foods are without a doubt fresher (and healthier) than highly processed pellets made from cheap fillers loaded with synthetic vitamins and table sugar. But they’re still not the diet that nature intended for parrots to consume every day.
In our next post, we’ll talk about feeding our birds the way they’re meant to eat – with whole, raw foods – on a budget!