Is Cheese Addictive, or Just Really Tasty?
Oh the things we have to worry about.
The September issue of Vegetarian Times has an article entitled:”Confessions of a Cheeseaholic” by Hillari Dowdle. Full disclosure, I have written many times for VT and love the magazine. I totally appreciate the challenges of keeping the magazine appealing to everyone who doesn’t eat meat, from the flexis and post-heart attack newbies to the lifelong whole fooders to the committed vegans. Just cutting out meat doesn’t make us a homogenous group, at all. Our ragtag coalition come to their meatless lifestyles for reasons ranging from animal rights, religion, the environment, and personal health, or a mix of all of the above.
So when I saw the headline, I thought, uh-oh, this is going to really take a dig at the ovo-lactos.
Luckily, I was wrong. In a careful reading, the piece is a balanced and informative rumination on what really goes on in industrial cheesemaking, and suggests that the overly cheese-dependent vegetarian needs to take a look at her diet. It’s not a diatribe against eating cheese, and even ends with Anna Lappe making a reasonable suggestion that those who eat too much cut back, and seek out high-quality, sustainable cheese.
That said, as someone who lives in Minnesota, affectionately known as the “Land of 10,000 Treatment Centers,” I think that using the term addiction might be a little strong. This is where people come who have hit rock bottom with addictions to hard drugs and alcohol, and rock bottom is usually a place where you have lost jobs, family, homes and self-respect because of the addiction. There are also treatment centers for eating disorders, which should be taken just as seriously.
The case made in the article, backed up by Dr Neal Barnard of the PCRM is that cheese is a very concentrated source of “casomorphins,” which affect the brains opiate receptors just like heroin. He calls cheese “dairy crack.” I suppose that a person eating cheese three times a day might be having a dysfunctional relationship to it. But crack is something that has no redeeming value at all. None. And dairy, provided you are not hitting the casomorph pipe too hard, can be a healthy part of your diet.
We can get hooked on chocolate, whose theobromines activate the same receptors in the brain as marijuana and love. We can abuse caffeine, sugar, alcohol and even fat to make ourselves feel better. Heck, recent research even finds that salt is a mood elevator of a sort, which may account to the crack-like addiction our entire culture seems to have with it, which is actually killing people every day by sending their blood pressure through the roof.
It’s all about balance.
So if you are an ovo-lacto and you are eating alot of cheese, take a look at that. In my experience, when folks first give up meat, they tend to switch to cheese as a protein source because it is familiar and easy. And don’t forget, delicious. But no one food, not tofu, not almonds, not brown rice, should be eaten at every meal.Make an effort to have a day or two a week where cheese is minimal-just opt for Chinese or Thai for a change, and see how that goes. If a luscious red curry tofu leaves you shaky with your jones for the white stuff, maybe you are a little hooked on the cow.
Hopefully if you are a cheese abuser, you can make an effort to opt for beans, nuts and creamy peanut butter some of the time. If it really has a hold on you, you may want to follow the advice of Isa Chandra Moskowitz and give it up completely. The vegan lifestyle may be your sobriety when it comes to dairy. Only you can decide.
For the rest of us, we should not worry needlessly about casomorphins. All sorts of mood changing chemicals are in foods and most people can handle it. Eat good, grass-fed, farmstead cheeses in small amounts, appreciate them, and eat a balanced diet of plants. Go vegan if that works for you, it can be a great way to live.
Just remember that eating is a celebration, and happiness and pleasure are as valuable as any vitamins.