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"Just be who you are, calm and clear and bright." - Richard Bach, Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah

Are You Addicted to Cheese?

I used to love dairy cheese—my favorite was the Cotswold cheddar with chives you can find at Trader Joe’s. I used to put it in sandwiches with avocado, or eat it plain. So many of my most comforting food memories revolve around cheese: my sister eating Peccorino Romano with a spoon as fast as our grandmother Dorothy could grate it before a spaghetti dinner (“The kid’s got expensive taste,” our grandfather remarked sardonically); Grandmom Kass serving up a perfectly browned grilled cheese, the American melted and gooey inside; a thoroughly delicious Italian “pie” with extra cheese in a dimly lit booth at Marra’s in South Philly; ribollita topped with more top-quality parmesan, a satisfying lunch after a morning of classes at La Pietra in Florence.

So when people ask if I miss cheese, they are probably surprised when I say no. I understand now that cows suffer so we can have milk and cheese, and nothing is so delicious that it can make me forget where it came from and how it was made. But this post isn’t going to focus on animal rights. This time I want to talk about your health.

Pizza made with Trader Joe’s vegan mozzarella.

When I used to joke that I was addicted to cheese, I didn’t realize I wasn’t actually kidding. Dairy cheese contains casomorphin, which is an opiate. As Bill Clinton notes in a recent interview (thanks for the link, Mike!), “The main thing that was hard for me actually—much harder than giving up meat, turkey, chicken and fish—was giving up yogurt and hard cheese.”

Furthermore, we have a tendency to think that it’s only red meat that will make us seriously ill in the long term, but if you read The China Study you’ll see that T. Colin Campbell’s research shows dairy consumption to be just as detrimental to one’s health:

As we have seen with other forms of cancer, large-scale observational studies show a link between prostate cancer and an animal-based diet, particularly one based heavily on dairy. Understanding the mechanisms behind the observed link between prostate cancer and dairy clinches the argument. The first mechanism concerns a hormone that increases cancer cell growth, a hormone that our bodies make, as needed. This growth hormone, Insulin-like Growth Factor (IGF-1), is turning out to be a predictor of cancer just as cholesterol is a predictor for heart disease…It turns out that consuming animal-based foods increases the blood levels of this growth hormone, IGF-1.

Oh, and those “Got Milk?” ads from the ’90s? Total baloney:

Americans consume more cow’s milk and its products per person than most populations in the world. So Americans should have wonderfully strong bones, right? Unfortunately not…those countries that use the most cow’s milk and its products also have the highest fracture rates and the worst bone health. One possible explanation is found in a report showing an impressively strong association between animal protein intake and bone fracture rate for women in different countries…[A]nimal protein, unlike plant protein, increases the acid load in the body…[calcium] ends up being pulled from the bones, and the calcium loss weakens them, putting them at greater risk for fracture. We have had evidence for well over a hundred years that animal protein decreases bone health.

Obviously neither kids nor their parents are learning about how milk has been linked to Type 1 diabetes, prostate cancer, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis or other autoimmune diseases, and how casein, the main protein in dairy foods, has been shown to experimentally promote cancer and increase blood cholesterol and atherosclerotic plaque.

In other words, you might still end up with heart disease on a lacto-vegetarian diet.

There are, of course, less dramatic health benefits. Give up dairy and you’ll spend way less time on the toilet, and your skin will clear up too. Since giving up dairy my system runs more smoothly in general.

Salad topped with Treeline cheese. This stuff is AMAZINGLY delicious–rich and creamy like goat’s cheese.

P1090787So what can you eat instead of dairy cheese?

I tried rice cheese back in college, and I’m not going to lie to bolster my case here: that stuff was gross. Thankfully, culinary R&D has made huge strides in the past ten years. Today, if you wanted, you could actually substitute vegan cheeses for “the real thing” tit for tat, using products by Daiya and Follow Your Heart and Treeline and Dr. Cow and more I haven’t had the chance to try yet. (It’s also quite easy to make your own, and you can achieve a firmer cheese using a dehydrator.) Got a hankering for grilled cheese or pizza? Daiya melts like dairy cheese, and tastes rather like it too. Hors-d’oeuvres? Offer some Dr. Cow tree-nut cheeses and watch your meat-loving friends gobble it up on fancy crackers (as I did at a Black Friday dinner party a couple years back). My dad has even made me a traditional lasagna using vegan ricotta! True, the flavor is not the same, but as I said earlier this week, I wouldn’t want these products to taste too much like dairy cheese.

Furthermore, most of the time I don’t feel the need for cheese analogs; I can count on one hand (okay, maybe one and a half) the number of times I’ve purchased vegan cheese in the past two years. When I “gave it up,” I realized just how little I needed or wanted it.

Of course, it’s easy for me to say this as someone who has already dealt with my cheese addiction. My advice for breaking yours is simple: if you really don’t think you’ll be able to give it up 1-2-3, just start using whichever alternatives most appeal to you, and gradually wean yourself off the traditional cheddar, parmesan, and so forth. Tastebuds regenerate every three to fourteen days (depending on whom you ask), which means that a food you found a little too “healthy” in August might taste downright delicious in September, provided you give it a second and third chance. A cheese addiction can be kicked just like any other habit, and in less time than you might expect!

1 Comment to Are You Addicted to Cheese?

  1. Kate's Gravatar Kate
    September 27, 2013 at 11:44 pm | Permalink

    I am more than willing to have you cook me one of those delicious-looking pizzas to convince me 😉

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Hi! I'm Camille. I only write stories that could never ever happen in real life, though I do believe in real-life magic. If we were in the same room I'd fix you a cup of tea, but for now we'll have to settle for a virtual connection. I'm really glad you're here.