We have heard so many people tell us that they “have been trying to go vegan for a long time now, but they can’t seem to give up cheese.” They often end this with the observation that they feel like maybe they are addicted to cheese. The term addiction has been used to describe so many situations where we find something that we really like and don’t want to go without it. It’s a part of our society. We sing about being “Addicted to Love” and nobody is checking themselves into rehab for cheese addiction. But believe it or not, there is plenty of science to back up the claim that dairy cheese is physically, chemically addictive.
Real life story: I could go months sometimes without dairy and then I would have one bite and be back to eating it. It was just like with alcoholics who think they can have one drink, but they really can’t. I would reach out for ice cream or goat cheese when I was stressed. It definitely calmed me. -Heather
If you are vegan, you are probably familiar with casein. It is the animal protein that is found in dairy products. It is even in some otherwise “veggy” style cheeses. Until the wonderful Daiya cheese came along and proved them all wrong, it was widely believed that vegetable-based cheese just could not melt and have ooey-gooey properties unless it contained casein. Well what you probably didn’t know about casein is that in the digestive process it turns into something scientists call casomorphin. Sounds kind of like an opiate drug that is a well known pain killer called morphine right? Well that’s because casomorphin is also an opiate and it has similar effects on the brain. It makes sense that mammals’ milk would contain compounds like this so that babies will want to feed from their mothers.1 Ever notice how that baby calms right down and goes to sleep after his or her milk? Yep, that’s casomorphin doing its job. And as long as it is a mother sharing her milk with her child, it’s a beautiful thing. But when adults are drinking the milk of other species, this is where health problems arise. And when the milk is turned into cheese, the casein, and hence the casomorphin, is especially concentrated (as are its effects and addictive qualities).
Definition of an opiate—sound familiar?
According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN), the definition of an opiate is “a dependence producing substance, which elicits effects by activating opioid receptors in the brain. Opioid dependence is a complex health condition that has social, psychological and biological determinants and consequences, including changes in the brain. The key elements of opioid dependence are a strong desire or sense of compulsion for the opiate, difficulties in stopping taking the opiate, a withdrawal state (or strong craving) when the opiate use had ceased or been reduced, evidence of a tolerance, such that larger doses are sought, and persistence of use of the opiate despite clear evidence of harmful consequences.” 2
I would crave dairy as my “comfort food” when stressed. I had it in my head that there was a connection between mac n’ cheese and feeling good. But in reality instead of feeling good, I’d feel guilty about it after for being a hypocrite (in regards to contributing to animal suffering). Plus, I knew it wasn’t healthy for me. -Heather
Regarding the opiates present in milk, British scientists have concluded that “many opioid peptides are biologically very potent. Therefore, even nutritionally insignificant amounts might be sufficient to exert physiological effects. Orally administered milk protein derived opioid peptides have been demonstrated to influence postprandial metabolism by stimulating secretion of insulin and somatostatin [a growth-hormone inhibiting hormone, which also decreases gastrointestinal emptying].”3
The holidays hit right after completing my 30 day vegan challenge, and I found myself confronted with cheese plates. I couldn’t believe how funny the cheese made me feel after I took a few bites. I actually felt like something was happening to my brain. And it didn’t seem like my digestion liked it too much either. -Devin
Why do we crave foods that are bad for us?
Cravings for foods that are high in fat (as well as sugar and salt, which are also unhealthy) are common. Why would people purposely seek out foods that are so unhealthy? Why would the body seem to want them? A frequently proposed theory on unhealthy eating is that people seek certain foods in an effort to elevate mood and affect certain good-feeling hormone receptors in the brain. This theory postulates that, in essence, food is being used as a form of self medication. This occurs through the brain neurotransmitter serotonin, which is known to have a positive impact on mood.4
But this positive feeling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It may actually be setting you up for more mood swings. The most well-known vitamins that modulate mood are B3 and B6 (prevalent in garlic, pistachios, whole brown rice, wheat and most fruits and vegetables). A deficiency in these vitamins is further aggravated by tryptophan-rich foods such as milk and poultry.3 So when that temporary feeling of happiness from the milk wears off, the craving will be even stronger because you will have a further deficiency in your B vitamins, feel down and be searching for another quick fix.
Why is it important to wean yourself (or your child) from this addiction?
B-Casomorphin-7 (BCM7), a peptide sequence present in the mammalian milk protein B-casein, has been suggested to contribute to an increased risk for certain non-communicable diseases, such as autism, cardiovascular diseases and type I diabetes.1 Casein from dairy milk is thought to contribute to autism in children, and in studies when casein was removed from the child’s diet, improvement was noted. This suggests the possibility that opioid peptides from casein pass into the central nervous system, causing damage. At the same time, the opiate creates an addiction, complicating matters as autistic patients experience withdrawal cravings when dairy is removed from their diet.5
Is it a brain allergy when your nose runs?
The term “brain allergy” came into popular use several years ago to describe the phenomena of psychiatric symptoms related to substances in one’s diet and environment. For instance, when people have a histamine response to dairy products, it can mean more than just dealing with post-nasal drip. For instance, histamine is implicated in the manifestation of the serious brain illness schizophrenia. This is further exacerbated if junk food is eaten instead of nutritionally dense fruits and vegetables. Scientists have found that there seems to be a direct relationship between nutritionally deficient states and maladaptive allergy, food addiction and chemical reactivity. Lack of variety and quality of food uses up enzymes while not providing sufficient nutrients for health. And nutrient deficiency allows an acute histaminic reaction. Inflammation and edema decrease oxygen to the tissue, which favors invasion by microorganisms. This culminates in more severe allergic sensitivity. This is why scientists are recommending a new sort of treatment for allergies. They say that addressing nutrient deficiency is a good place to start in the treatment of hypersensitivity with allergy-type symptoms.6
How to beat the cravings:
All diseases begin in the gut. –Hippocrates
Researchers have shown that dietary preference is correlated with the sort of flora that you have in your gut, and that people who have certain cravings have certain flora.7 In fact, researchers have found that the flora in a baby’s gut originally develops while still in the womb because of foods the mother ate while pregnant. If the mother ate a diet that was high in fat, it will actually change the baby’s DNA such that the child’s brain will release more chemicals such as dopamine when the child ingests opioids in fatty foods.8
The mind is bigger than the stomach!
Even if the cards are completely stacked against you this way, there is still hope. Scientists have proven in clinical trials that various nutrition education and behavioral counseling approaches have been shown to successfully facilitate changes in the consumption of fatty foods, even when cravings are strong. They add that the success of these sorts of programs depends to a large extent on how motivated the individual is to make these changes. 9
For some, having a health scare like cancer or heart disease or even seeing that they are on the verge of such illnesses with high cholesterol or triglyceride numbers will do the trick. For others it is the knowledge of the suffering of animals in dairy farms (and who are later slaughtered) that brings the motivation. There is also the motivation that dairy farms produce such enormous amounts of manure and other waste that poisons the air and water that does it. For most, it is a combination of all three. So whenever you find yourself craving cheese, first of all, you will have the knowledge of the physiological reasons, and realize that this desire is normal. Then, you can calmly remind yourself of why you want to remove dairy products from your diet. You may even want to hang pictures of fit vegan bodies (tear some pages from this magazine) or cute baby calves or clean flowing streams to remind you of your motivation. Then, stock your refrigerator with the best-tasting vegan cheeses around. Daiya (the geniuses that figured out how to make vegan cheese out of tapioca) makes some really delicious vegan cheeses that you can sprinkle where you want something melty or you can get a wedge and enjoy little chunks on their own (yes, they are that good!) Veg Cuisine also makes feta and blue cheeses that are wonderful on salads and in recipes. Wayfare (another group of innovative geniuses who make vegan cheese out of oatmeal) also makes some delicious vegan cheese spreads in a variety of flavors. There are also quite a few tasty Parmesan-style vegan cheeses such as Gopal’s Rawmesan and Sister River Foods Parma!
We had some former dairy cheese lovers who wanted to go vegan sample this plan and it worked for them. They said that the vegan cheeses were so delicious that they didn’t miss the dairy at all. Like Heather: Heather’s happy ending: I beat my cheese craving by deciding to really commit to being vegan and now the cravings are gone. I also have a lot of support from vegan friends, which equals lots of yummy food and potlucks. I had been vegetarian for 25 years and finally had enough. I can’t imagine living any other way. Another option is to check out the fun and easy recipes in The Ultimate Uncheese Cookbook by Jo Stepaniak. If you prefer raw foods, you like making your own cheeses from scratch, or if you have a penchant for the more exotic cheeses that are not yet commercially available in vegan form, we recommend the wonderful recipe book called Artisan Vegan Cheeses by Miyoko Schinner that will teach you how to make every kind of vegan cheese from a simple cashew cheese to almond Ricotta, to lemon Chevre, to Muenster, to Gruyere and more! This book even starts by telling you how to make your own rejuvelac from whole grains such as brown rice, kamut berries, millet, oat groats, quinoa, rye berries, wheat berries or a combination. (Rejuvelac is a fermented digestive aid full of probiotics, which is but a hint of the many ways raw vegan cheeses are so good for you. You can also purchase it already made at most health food stores.)