Food addiction is a very real problem in today’s society. For example, have you ever tried to give up dairy only to cave after a few days because your cheese cravings just got the best of you?
It turns out, it can feel like you have a cheese addiction because cheese is an addictive food — it’s essentially dairy crack cocaine. And you’re certainly not alone in your love for cheese; the average American eats 23 pounds of cheese a year. And consider that’s three times the amount of cheese consumption in the 1970s, it’s getting worse.
This is all thanks to the dairy proteins inside cheese. Cheese and other milk products contain a protein called casein. When casein is digested it releases opioid compounds. According to Dr. Neil Barnard, founder, and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM),“[Dairy opioids] attach to the brain's opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do.”
Why would these opioid compounds occur naturally in milk? Barnard researched and wrote all about it in his book, The Cheese Trap: How Breaking a Surprising Addiction Will Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Get Healthy. He explains, “Imagine if a calf did not want to nurse. Or if a human baby was not interested in nursing. They would not do very well. So, along with protein, fat, sugar, and a sprinkling of hormones, milk contains opiates that reward the baby for nursing.” Simply put, these opiates, called casomorphins, are highly addictive, so the analogy of “dairy crack” is more than figurative.
How much casein/casomorphin is really in cheese? Barnard says, “A cup of milk contains about 7.7 grams of protein, 80 percent of which is casein, more or less. Turning it into Cheddar cheese multiplies the protein content seven-fold, to 56 grams. It is the most concentrated form of casein in any food in the grocery store.”
Along with these casomorphins, cheese is loaded with saturated fat, a major contributor to heart disease. Fun and/or scary fact: Harvard reports that pizza and cheese are the biggest food sources of saturated fat in the American Diet! Cheese is also packed with sodium, which in excess can lead to hypertension.
Too much casein has also been linked to certain types of cancer.
And while we could stand here and list all the reasons you may want to give cheese the boot, most folks don’t struggle understanding why cheese isn’t a health food— they have trouble breaking their habit.
The good news is you can embrace an anti-dairy lifestyle and leave cheese in the dust! Here’s how to give up cheese for good:
Can’t go cold turkey? That’s ok! If you’re the type of person who puts cheese on basically everything, start small. Pick a few days a week where you go cheese-free. Then as the weeks go by, add more and more days without cheese until eventually, your entire week is cheese-free.
There are some plant-based cheese alternatives, but first, it’s good to understand these alternatives are not cheese. Nut cheeses are not made from dairy and giving them some distance from the cheese you grew up with will help fend off disappointment and allow you to enjoy nut cheese as their own delicious food group.
Also, if you follow a whole food plant-based diet, beware of some of the store-bought vegan cheeses, which can be loaded with sodium, oil, and preservatives. We have an oil-free cashew cream cheese recipe here or if you’re looking to get something at the grocery store, Treeline has some nice oil-free french-style nut cheeses.
One of the best things a cheese lover turned plant-based eater can do is go out and buy some nutritional yeast, or as vegans often call it, “nooch.” Found in the spice aisle at most grocery stores (and definitely at natural food stores) this deactivated yeast doesn’t expand so you don't have that a loaf of bread will bake in your stomach after consuming. Nutritional yeast is a great addition to your spice rack because it gives your food a nutty and cheesy flavor.
Again, giving any plant-based alternative a little distance from the “real thing” is best, but if I were going to compare nutritional yeast to any kind of cheese, it’d be parmesan. Great for sprinkling on pastas, soup, tofu scrambles, on popcorn, on steamed veggies. You can’t go wrong with nooch.
Worried you'll miss the creamy texture melted and soft cheese can bring to a dish? You can still get creamy textures in your pasta, pizza, and rice dishes without using dairy. Look to avocados, soaked and blended raw cashews, dairy-free milks (oat, almond, soy, coconut, etc.), blended cooked potatoes, blended white beans. Or try our Lazy Lasagna and we promise, you'll be in creamy dreamy pasta heaven.
Up until now, you may have relied on cheese to flavor your food. Americans have a habit of putting cheese on everything! So now that you're cheese-free, food may taste bland. But it doesn't have to be this way.
One of the coolest things about going dairy-free and transitioning to a whole food plant-based diet is that your cooking options actually expand (contrary to popular belief that eating this way is restrictive). All the sudden, you’re going to look to your spice cabinet, and not a slice of cheese, for flavor. Have fun! Explore, look up recipes, glean Pinterest. Make dinnertime an adventure. Want some tried and true dairy-free recipes? Check out MamaSezz plant-based recipes from Chef Caroline for inspiration.
Change doesn’t always happen overnight. Take it one day at a time. If you end up eating some cheese at a dinner party, no worries. Just get back on the cheese-free horse at your next meal or snack time. Have some empathy for yourself — it’s hard to cut out bad habits but within a few weeks it’ll get easier until eventually, you won’t even miss it. In fact, our taste buds can change drastically in just two weeks. You can cut the dairy crack out of your diet, and leave cheese protein behind. You've got this.
By Ali Brown
Ali is a nutrition and lifestyle writer and editor, with a Plant-Based Nutrition Certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies.