Cheese is the kind of food you love and hate. It's ooey, gooey, and delicious, but it also happens to be chock-full of saturated fat, sodium, and calories, all of which can contribute to weight gain and health problems if not eaten in moderation. But whether you're an occasional cheese nibbler or a full-on obsessive, some recent headlines may have caused alarm. In his new book, The Cheese Trap, Neal Barnard, M.D., F.A.C.C., makes some pretty inflammatory claims about the snack. Specifically, Barnard says that cheese contains opiates that have similar addictive properties to hard drugs like heroin or morphine. Um, what?! (Related: How Taking Painkillers for My Basketball Injury Spiraled Into a Heroin Addiction)
The Background Behind the Additction
Barnard says he conducted an experiment in 2003—backed by the National Institutes of Health—in which he looked at the varying effects of different diets on patients with diabetes. The patients who saw improvements in their diabetes symptoms were those who stayed on plant-based vegan diets and didn't cut calories. "They could eat as much as they want, and they were never hungry," he says.
What he did notice, though, was that these same subjects kept coming back to one food they missed the most: cheese. "They would describe it the way you would describe your last drink if you were an alcoholic," he says. This observation is what inspired a new course of research for Barnard, and what he found was pretty insane. "Cheese is really addicting," he says simply. "There are opiate chemicals in cheese that hit exactly the same brain receptors that heroin attaches to. They're not as strong—they have about one-tenth of the binding power compared to that of pure morphine."
And that's notwithstanding the other issues Barnard has with cheese, including its saturated fat content. On average, he found that a vegetarian who consumes cheese can be as much as 15 pounds heavier than a vegetarian who doesn't indulge in the melty stuff. Plus, "the average American consumes 60,000 calories worth of cheese per year," he says. That's a LOT of gouda. Then there are also the detrimental health effects of an excessive cheese diet. According to Barnard, people who eat a lot of cheese can experience headaches, acne, and even infertility for both men and women.
After reviewing all of this cheese hate, and thinking about the growing obesity epidemic in America, The Cheese Trap's bold statements could make you a little concerned about ordering the triple-cheese quesadilla next time.
The Backlash Behind It
Frankly, the idea of cutting any food out of your diet completely is a bit scary, although Barnard suggests it would take just about three weeks to retrain your brain to stop craving cheese—at least for the opioid effect or the fatty, salty taste. And considering that a single ounce of cheddar cheese has a whopping nine grams of fat, we asked food scientist Taylor Wallace, Ph.D., to weigh in on the dairy-versus-crack claims. Just how bad could cheese really be?
Wallace agrees with Bernard on the sheer crave-worthiness of cheese, saying that "in the food world, taste is always king—cheese has that smooth mouthfeel and many bold flavors." But that's where the similar opinions end. First and foremost, Wallace quickly debunks this notion that cheese can act in the same way as crack or another dangerous opioid drug. Research out of Tufts University indicates that you can train your brain over a six-month period to crave just about any type of food—even healthy foods like broccoli, says Wallace. "We all have taste preferences and foods we enjoy, but stating that cheese—or any food for that matter—has the same or similar addictive properties as illegal drugs is not backed by science."
Still trying to cut back for your waistline? Wallace says you don't need to go cold turkey. "Research shows that cutting out a specific food or food group only has a negative effect on weight and cravings," says Wallace. What's more, eating cheese, specifically, isn't going to make you gain 15 pounds more than your dairy-free friend.
"Overconsumption of any food that is high in calories and/or saturated fat can lead to weight gain and digestive issues," says Wallace, which could include any kind of vegan food that's full of garbage, like potato chips or few cans of sugary soda. The key lies in, you guessed it, moderation. From a nutritional standpoint, Wallace also reminds you that cheese and other dairy products provide essential nutrients such as calcium, protein, and vitamin A, so there's more to that slice of Swiss cheese than saturated fat and delightful mouthfeel.
The Bottom Line
Enjoying your favorite thing between two slices of bread is nowhere near the same thing as using a very serious drug. (P.S. Have you tried these grilled cheese recipes?) But yes, cheese is high-calorie, sodium-heavy, and full of saturated fat, so enjoy it on occasion instead of on everything. If you're vegan or have a dairy sensitivity or heck, just don't really love cheese all that much (gasp), there are plenty of ways to add creaminess or flavor to your meals, such as mashed avocado or nutritional yeast.