We often use the phrase “I’m addicted to …” in casual food conversations, but cheese may possess the true power of persuasion. For years, countless Go Dairy Free readers have expressed dramatic struggles with breaking their dependent cheese relationships, and according to a University of Michigan cross-sectional study with over 500 participants, it may be an actual food addiction.
The researchers initially sought to prove that highly processed foods share certain addictive properties (such as concentrated dose and rapid rate of absorption) with abused drugs. Their findings appeared proof positive, but another interesting side note emerged: among all of the “unprocessed” foods tested, cheese addiction was tops, and pizza also received the top meal ranking within the “processed” food group.
The study was actually published in February, but hit mainstream news this week thanks to the outspoken president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Dr. Neal Barnard.
Why Cheese? The primary protein type in milk is known as casein, and it tends to be found in very concentrated amounts in cheese. During digestion, casein breaks down to release casomorphins. According to Dr. Barnard, “Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do.” The reported “feel good” reward from casomorphins is what some scientists believe helps an infant bond with his/her mother when nursing.
Though the Michigan study doesn’t evaluate any biomarkers, and I couldn’t locate any scientific research to directly refute nor back up Dr. Barnard’s somewhat extreme “heroin” claims (and please ignore the popular vegan blogger who claims that milk contains morphine – it does not), the survey and observational evidence for cheese addiction has been stacking up.
But if casomorphin is to blame, wouldn’t other forms of dairy have a similar, though lesser, effect? As it turned out, ice cream ranked as the second most addictive food in the entire study and it was the only other dairy food included. Since addiction to milk, cream, yogurt and other dairy products were not evaluated, and all of the dairy foods that were questioned ranked highly, further studies would be needed to assess if it is merely cheese addiction or an attachment to dairy that just happens to be concentrated in your favorite mozzarella.
How to Break Cheese Addiction
For those who want to eat dairy-free or simply pursue a healthier diet, cheese seems to be the biggest hurdle. The good news is, the cravings can be broken. The bad news is, as with any addiction, the best method is usually cold turkey. For many people, even a shred of cheddar can trigger further cravings. In fact, even a drop of any dairy product, if casomorphins are truly the culprit, may prompt a call to Pizza Hut.
To encourage willpower, make sure your meals are planned and your snack stash is well stocked. The biggest enemy to cheese addiction, or any food addiction for that matter, is hunger. If your blood sugar dips, you may be tempted to hit the vending machine for some Cheetos. Having healthy food accessible and prepared when you need it most is essential. You can see our recipes and product reviews for great homemade and store-bought dairy-free inspiration, respectively.
And though I don’t recommend jumping straight into cheese alternatives – truthfully, they really aren’t the same – once you are a few weeks in and your taste bud memory isn’t quite as powerful, consider trialing a few faux soft, hard and saucy cheese options (recipes or pre-made) to fulfill that salty, pungent void.
More Helpful Resources for Conquering Cheese Addition: