With so many conflicting messages online, it can be incredibly difficult to differentiate what's healthy from what's not. Is the latest ancient superfood discovery really a cure for hormone imbalance? Is eating raw food better for you than consuming the cooked version? While health and wellness trends come and go, thankfully there are some things we're all taught since school age that we don't ever have to question… or should we? If the latest research is anything to go by, we should be eating 10 portions of fruit and vegetables a day instead of five, as previously thought, and that eating cheese doesn't, in fact, make your heart healthier. Wait, what? All those years of drinking calcium-enriched milk in our elementary years with a cheese stick for lunch have actually been doing our health a disservice? According to Neal D. Barnard, MD, author of New York Times best seller The Cheese Trap, it's actually sabotaging it.
Thanks to the war on sugar, we're all aware of the addictive nature of the saccharine treat and know what to look out for when buying groceries, but Barnard's new study puts the same laser focus on cheese. Why is cheese so bad for us? While U.S. government figures show that soda and sweetener consumption has fallen since 1999, obesity figures have worsened, which Barnard say parallels with the continuing rise in cheese consumption. "The average American consumes 60,000 calories worth of cheese (or about 31 pounds) every year, and evidence suggests that it is a major contributor to weight problems, both in adults and children," he explained. Intrigued?
Ahead, Barnard outlines the reason cheese is so addictive, why breaking the habit is key to improved weight and health, and a very surprising fact you probably wish you didn't know about this delicious food.
MYDOMAINE: You mention in the book that cheese is a "surprising addiction" for millions of Americans, and with the amount we consume as a nation, the addictive nature of this popular household staple might come as a shock. Why is it so addictive?
NEAL BARNARD: There are three reasons we get hooked on cheese: First, cheese is surprisingly salty. Second, cheese is fatty—about 70% of its calories come from fat, and we love that fatty-salty combination (think of French fries, potato chips, or onion rings). Third, cheese harbors mild opiates called casomorphins that are released during digestion and pass into the brain, attaching to the same brain receptors as heroin or morphine.
Cheese is fattening, habit-forming, and contributes to a surprising range of health problems. The good news is that when people break the habit, these problems tend to melt away.
MD: Could breaking a cheese habit be the answer to improving our weight and health?
NB: Yes. Comparisons of health-conscious people have been very revealing. Looking at vegetarians, for example; those who avoid cheese and other dairy products are about 15 pounds slimmer, on average, than those who consume these products. You're skipping a huge load of fat and calories.
MD: What is it about cheese's nutrient make-up that is a "double-whammy for the waistline" (as you mention in the book)?
NB: It is high-fat and zero-fiber. The fat in cheese can pass into your body fat very easily, unlike, say, bread, which cannot be stored as fat until it is broken down and converted into fat molecules, a process that eliminates about a quarter of its calories. Storing cheese fat in body fat is practically automatic and does not burn up much of any calories at all.
The absence of fiber means you can easily overdo it. Your appetite control machinery relies on fiber to fill you up and turn down your appetite. Since cheese has zero fiber, it is very easy to gain weight with it.
MD: What is the most surprising fact that people don't know about cheese but you wish they did?
NB: Cheese contains female sex hormones, raising the question of fertility problems for men and breast cancer for women. Cows are artificially inseminated annually and are pregnant for nine months of every year. A pregnant cow produces large amounts of estradiol and other hormones, and traces end up in milk.
The cheesemaking process concentrates the compounds in the milk. In a large Australian study, dairy-consuming women had measurably more estrogen in their blood, compared with women who consumed little or no dairy. For men, researchers in Rochester, New York, found that cheese consumption was associated with lower sperm counts.
MD: What are some of the proven health benefits of a cheese-free vegan diet?
NB: When people switch to a healthy, low-fat vegan diet, weight loss is remarkably easy, about a pound per week. Type 2 diabetes often improves dramatically and sometimes disappears. For many people, joint pains (particularly rheumatoid arthritis), migraines, and asthma simply go away.
MD: If it is a true addiction, then going cheese-free straight away isn't going to be easy for most people—what do you recommend?
NB: Take a week and check out the delightful replacements. Once you find the replacements you like best, go dairy-free for three weeks and you will be astounded how great you feel. If you miss cheese's aroma, you could always hang out in a laundromat. The smell of dirty socks and smelly feet actually comes from brevibacteria—the same bacteria used for muenster, Limburger, and other cheeses.
MD: What are some healthier mealtime choices or food swaps we can make that bring the same flavor and satisfaction as cheese?
NB: The Cheese Trap has delightful dairyless recipes for everything from fettuccine alfredo to "cheese" cake. Sprinkle nutritional yeast on your pizza for a cheesy taste without the fat, cholesterol, or hormones. Instead of a grilled cheese sandwich, have a hummus sandwich.
MD: Many of us who consume and love cheese wouldn't know about its high sodium content. How much does it contain, and why should we be worried about it?
NB: Salt is used in cheesemaking to control bacterial fermentation, and the amounts are huge. For comparison, two ounces of potato chips have 330 milligrams of sodium. Two ounces of cheddar have 350, and two ounces of process cheese (Velveeta) have 800.
MD: What are some of the major health problems linked to dairy and cheese consumption?
NB: The huge fat and calorie load is linked to obesity. Cheese is the leading source of saturated fat, which is linked to heart disease and Alzheimer's disease. The dairy proteins that are concentrated in cheese are linked to inflammatory conditions and sensitivities such as arthritis, skin problems, asthma, and migraines. The salt in cheese is linked to high blood pressure and water-weight gain. Hormonal problems are still under study, but we are looking at fertility problems and prostate cancer.
MD: If we can't remove cheese from our diets altogether, what is your suggested dose/amount per day/week we can consume and still be healthy?
NB: You can safely have cheese about as often as you can safely smoke a cigarette, which is to say every dose will just lure you back into an unhealthy habit. Let it go. And do not feed it to anyone you love, especially children. If you do, you will set them up for the same addiction and health problems their parents are struggling with. They will get plenty of calcium from green vegetables and beans and plenty of protein from beans, grains, and vegetables, and they will be slimmer and healthier.
Many athletes, particularly in tennis, pro football, and distance running are going dairy free in order to reduce inflammation and boost energy. You're not just breaking free from cheese. You're regaining a new level of health and vitality that many people never experience.
To find out more, shop Barnard's best-selling title, The Cheese Trap, below.