If I were to ask you what the number one food is that people say they could never give up if they were to go vegan, what would you guess? Steak, ice cream, milk? Not really. Cheese! Not meat, not eggs, not milk, but CHEESE! I get it. I had the same thoughts myself just before I went totally vegan. As thoughts of leaving cheese behind entered my brain, their arose simultaneous pictures of pizza with lots of mozzarella, lasagna dripping with ricotta and parmesan, grilled cheese sandwiches, cheese and crackers . . . well, you get the picture. You would think that meat would be at the top of the list, or at least some particular kind of meat, but cheese wins the front row seat almost every time. Why is that?
The Opiate Factor
It tastes great for starters, but that really is the surface reason. There is another component that is far more powerful that makes us recoil at the idea of giving up cheese. IT’S ADDICTIVE! Cheese contains small amounts of morphine like substances called casomorphins that act like opiates in our brains and make us want more. Neal Barnard explains this phenomena in his book Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reason Behind Food Cravings – And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally. He says that a one-ounce slice of cheese has about 5 grams of casein which is a protein substance found in milk. When casein is broken down in the digestive system, the casein molecules are reduced to small chains of amino acids called casomorphins. These casomorphins in turn have about one-tenth the opiate and pain-killing effects of morphine.
The presence of casomorphins in cow’s milk, as well as in human milk, is nature’s sneaky way of ensuring that mother and baby bond to each other, and baby gets enough to eat. As calves (or human infants) breast feed, they get the opiate calming effects of morphine present in casomorphins, and they associate this feeling with being fed by mom. They will always come back for more. Pretty cool trick of Mother Nature's!
The problem is that the naturally occurring casomorphins are only meant to be ingested during the infant years. Beyond that, milk and milk products have addictive characteristics while also leaving us vulnerable to a host of physical problems and ills that come with their ingestion. Cheese in particular has the greatest calorie density per ounce of food (200 calories per ounce) than all other foods. The same amount also has a whopping 15 grams of saturated fat. As you’ll remember, saturated fat is the bad kind with high cholesterol counts and artery clogging sludge. As if that weren’t enough, milk has been associated positively for the promotion of prostate and breast cancer. According to a Harvard study cited by Dr. Barnard, men who avoid dairy products have a reduction in prostate cancer risk of about 30%. Milk and dairy products have also been associated with migraines, diabetes, and digestive problems.
How Can I Break the Addiction?
So how do vegans get around this? Dr. Barnard says stay away from cheese for at least 21 days at which point the addiction will be broken. I found that after a month I really didn’t miss cheese much at all with only an occasional stray thought wondering what it might be like to try it again. In those cases, there are some good vegan cheeses you can try to ward off those occasional thoughts, but once those feel good casomorphins are no longer circulating in your system, you actually lose the taste for cheese. Sound like "cheese" sacrilege? Only for a short while. No cheese means lower body weight, cleaner arteries, and increased energy. More importantly, you will no be longer be participating in and supporting an industry that routinely holds cows captive, keeps them impregnated, only to pull their calves away at birth as they too wait for slaughter. The cruelty imposed in this standard factory farm practice cannot be denied. Cows have strong bonds to their young and it is heartbreaking to witness the pain on all sides that occurs when they lose their offspring, not to mention the methods by which they are slaughtered. It was this factor that moved me to make a break from cheese more than any other. Give it try. You will feel better!
Barnard M.D., Neal D. (2010-07-20). Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings---And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally. Macmillan. Kindle Edition.
Chan JM, Stampfer MJ, Maj, Gann PH, GazianoJM, Giovannucci E. Dairy products, calcium, and prostate cancer risk in the Physicians’ Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr 2001;74:549–54.
Giovannucci E, Rimm EB, Wolk A, Ascherio A, Stampfer MJ, Colditz GA, Willett WC. Calcium and fructose intake in relation to risk of prostate cancer. Cancer Res 1998;58:442–7.