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The Hidden Danger: How Cheese Addiction Could Be Putting Your Health at Risk


As I have mentioned in recent posts, I have pivoted my eating habits to mostly whole-food, plant-based (aka. vegan) since attending the International Conference on Nutrition in Medicine in August. I say mostly because there are still a few “processed” products (like bread, crackers, tortillas, black-bean burgers, etc.) that I have included in my diet, but they are still plant-based. It has been a beautiful, delicious transition with the rainbow of produce, whole-grains, and legumes in my dishes. Overall, I feel better, sleep better, have more energy…yada, yada, yada.


What is the one thing that I miss the most?


Cheese!


It is a common theme among omnivores that transition to whole-food, plant-based eating style, so I am not alone. I can give up the animal-proteins easily and I had already eliminated eggs and transitioned to plant-based milks, but I really miss cheese!


Do you also find yourself constantly craving the ooey-gooey goodness of cheese? Do you find it difficult to resist the allure of a perfectly melted slice or a creamy cheese dip? Why does cheese have such powerful effects on us? There's just something about cheese that makes it utterly irresistible, but what exactly is it that makes cheese so addictive? Well, it all comes down to the science behind it.



Cheese contains a protein called casein, which is found in milk and other dairy products. When casein is digested, it releases casomorphins, opioid-like compounds that have a calming and pleasurable effect on the brain. These casomorphins can bind to opioid receptors in the brain (similar to the effects of morphine, heroin, or cocaine), triggering a release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Like pain medications, casomorphins also act on the opioid receptors in the gut leading to the unfortunate constipation side effects of cheese consumption.


Despite the consequences, the combination of the creamy texture, rich flavor, and the release of dopamine can create a blissful experience that keeps you coming back for more. This dopamine rush creates a positive emotional response, which can lead to cravings for more cheese. It's no wonder that cheese lovers often find themselves reaching for another slice, seeking that addictive feeling of pleasure and satisfaction.


While indulging in cheese can bring immense pleasure, it can also give rise to feelings of guilt. We all know that consuming excessive amounts of cheese is not the healthiest choice. The high fat and sodium content can lead to weight gain, heart issues, and other health concerns.


But despite being aware of the potential drawbacks, cheese addicts often find it difficult to resist their guilty pleasure. The irresistible taste, the creamy texture, and the way it enhances various dishes make it hard to say no. It's like a love-hate relationship where the pleasure derived from cheese consumption outweighs the guilt that lingers afterwards.


There has been ongoing debate and research regarding the potential link between cheese consumption and chronic diseases. Let’s take a look!


Obesity


Obesity is a growing concern worldwide, and dietary factors play a significant role in its development. Due to its calorie and fat content, cheese has been associated with weight gain and obesity. A well-balanced diet that focuses on whole foods like legumes, whole-grains, vegetables, and fruits has been shown to lead to weight loss and reduced risk for chronic diseases.


Diabetes


Diabetes is a metabolic disorder characterized by high blood sugar levels. Maintaining stable blood sugar levels is crucial in managing this condition. Concerns have been raised about the impact of cheese consumption on diabetes due to its saturated fat content, as well as its potential influence on insulin resistance. Conventional wisdom says that consuming carbohydrates with a protein or fat (like cheese) can reduce the insulin spike that can occur with the carbohydrate alone.


But studies have shown that dietary fat can impair insulin-sensitivity in Type 1 diabetes and the type of fat (animal-based or plant-based) made no difference. High dietary protein was shown to impair insulin secretion (for those Type 1 diabetics who still had some insulin secretion capabilities).


Research has shown that increased dietary saturated fat consumption can clog our cells, increase systemic inflammation, and lead to insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, systemic inflammation, and metabolic disorders have been linked to an increased risk for type 2 diabetes.


Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet (i.e., eliminating animal-based products) has been shown to decrease the risk of developing and can even reverse type 2 diabetes.


Cardiovascular Disease


Cardiovascular disease, including conditions such as heart disease and stroke, is a leading cause of death globally. It is crucial to understand the impact of dietary choices, including cheese consumption, on cardiovascular health.


Saturated fat is primarily found in animal-based foods like meats, cheese, and other dairy products and can contribute to elevated LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels. LDL cholesterol is often referred to as "bad cholesterol," as high levels can clog arteries and increase the risk of heart disease.


Additionally, cheese can be a significant source of dietary cholesterol. Consuming too much cholesterol can raise blood cholesterol levels and potentially lead to atherosclerosis, a condition where plaque accumulates in the arteries, narrowing them over time.


Some studies (many sponsored by the dairy industry) have found that there is no link between cheese consumption and an increased risk for cardiovascular disease. While others have found increased consumption of dietary saturated fat and sodium are intrinsically linked to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease (something cheese has an abundance of). The relationship between cheese and cardiovascular disease appears to be complex and multifaceted, with factors such as portion control, overall diet quality, and other lifestyle habits potentially playing significant roles.


Certain types of cheese, like those made from fermented milk (e.g., aged cheeses), contain compounds such as probiotics and peptides, which may have potential cardiovascular benefits. These compounds could potentially contribute to reducing blood pressure and improving overall heart health, but how much do they balance the saturated fat and sodium risk factors? Further research is needed to fully understand the mechanisms and potential risks and benefits of cheese consumption and cardiovascular disease.


Cancer


Many people like to blame genetics for their increased risk for cancer. However, only 5-10% of cancers can be linked to genetics. And the wonderful thing about genes is that they can be turned on or off by environmental factors (like the foods we eat). So, what does this have to do with cheese?


There is a population on this planet that is genetically more likely to have lactose intolerance. This population also had very little dairy consumption until recently. That makes this a unique population to study the effects of dairy consumption on our health and the risk for chronic diseases including cancer. What is that population, you ask? Asians.


Asians began adopting a more westernized or Standard American diet relatively recently including increasing consumption of dairy products despite their inclination to lactose intolerance. As such, rates of diabetes, heart disease and CANCER have increased in their population since the 1980s.


While causation cannot be proven, there is a strong correlation between dairy consumption and increasing risk for most cancers. Researchers believe that hormones in the heifer including estrogens and growth factors transfer to the milk to grow their small calf into a large cow in a relatively short amount of time. When we consume these hormones, they also tell our cells to grow at an accelerated rate, which leads to an increase in cancer rates (especially breast and prostate cancers).


One interesting finding, though, is there is a decreased risk for colorectal cancer with dairy consumption. More research is needed to determine why this is.


Whole-food Plant-Based Alternative to Cheese


If you're a cheese lover but following a whole-food plant-based diet, you might think that giving up cheese is a challenge. However, fear not! There are plenty of delicious and healthy alternatives to traditional cheese that will satisfy your cravings without compromising your dietary choices. In this section, we'll explore some fantastic options that will make your taste buds dance with joy.


1. Nut Cheese: A Creamy Delight

Nut cheese has gained popularity as a delightful alternative to dairy-based cheese. Made from blended nuts, it offers a creamy and rich texture that closely resembles traditional cheese. Some popular nut cheese options include cashew cheese, almond cheese, and macadamia cheese. These cheeses can be easily made at home with soaked nuts, water, and a few flavorings like nutritional yeast, lemon juice, and spices. Spread them on crackers, use them as a dip, or incorporate them into your favorite recipes for a burst of flavor.

2. Tofu-based Cheese: A Versatile Option

Tofu, a staple in many plant-based diets, serves as an excellent base for creating cheese alternatives. Its neutral taste makes it a versatile ingredient that can be transformed into various cheese-like textures and flavors. By blending soft or silken tofu with nutritional yeast, herbs, and spices, you can create a silky-smooth spreadable cheese or a firm tofu "feta." Experiment with different seasonings and techniques to find the taste and consistency that suits your preferences best.

3. Veggie-based Cheese: Adding a Twist

If you're looking to add an extra dose of nutrition to your cheese alternatives, consider incorporating veggies into the mix. By combining vegetables like carrots, potatoes, or cauliflower with soaked nuts or tofu, you can create a deliciously cheesy concoction. These veggie-based cheeses are not only tasty but also packed with essential vitamins and minerals. You can enjoy them melted on sandwiches, grated on pasta dishes, or as a flavorful dip for raw veggies.

4. Fermented Cheese: Cultivating Flavor

Fermentation is a process that adds complexity and depth of flavor to foods, including cheese alternatives. Fermented nut cheese, such as aged cashew cheese or cultured almond cheese, undergoes a fermentation process that mimics the tangy taste of aged dairy cheese. This process not only enhances the taste but also introduces beneficial probiotics, which can support gut health. So, if you're looking for a cheese alternative that offers both taste and digestive benefits, give fermented options a try.

5. Store-Bought Options: Wide Variety Available

If you prefer convenience, there is a wide range of whole-food plant-based cheese alternatives available in stores. Look for brands that emphasize using natural and wholesome ingredients, devoid of artificial additives or preservatives. These options often include nut-based cheeses, tofu-based cheeses, and even vegetable-based cheeses. Whether you need a slice of vegan cheddar for your sandwich or a tub of dairy-free cream cheese for your bagels, you're likely to find a suitable option at your local grocery store or online.


Remember to be open-minded and give these alternatives a fair chance. While they may not taste exactly like traditional cheese, they offer their own unique textures and flavors that can satisfy your cravings in a healthier way. Embrace the experimentation and embark on a cheesy adventure that aligns with your whole-food plant-based lifestyle.


So, the next time you find yourself reaching for that extra slice of cheese or craving a cheesy snack, remember that your brain is being tricked by dopamine, and that guilty pleasure is just part of the addiction. Cheese consumption can lead to health issues, such as weight gain and high cholesterol. So, while indulging in your favorite cheesy treats is undoubtedly enjoyable, perhaps a plant-based option can satisfy the craving and help you on your journey to a healthy, more balanced life!




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