The Cheese Trap by Neal D. Barnard, MD, looks at the risks to health caused by cheese.
Barnard is on the faculty of The George Washington School of Medicine. He is also founder of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine. When you look at his book cover, the A in the word TRAP is shown as a hunk of Swiss cheese dangling on a large hook. This picture captures the book’s central message: Cheese is effective bait not only for fish and mice, but also for humans.
Taste is a big reason why cheese is so effective as bait for humans. Cheese is high in salt and fat content, and this tasty combination is hard to beat. If cheese didn’t have a high salt content, its taste appeal would fall flat.
Cheese keeps people hooked because casein, a dairy protein found in all dairy products, makes it addicting. When casein is digested, it has breakdown products called casomorphins. These morphine-like compounds attach to the same brain receptors that heroin, morphine, and other narcotics latch onto. Functional MRI imaging shows that these brain centers light up with casein. Like narcotics, casein stimulates the brain to release dopamine, the pleasure molecule that makes these substances so addicting. This gives cheese a true addicting quality, over and above its taste appeal.
A cup of milk carries 7.7 grams of protein, most of it casein. Protein is multiplied seven-fold in Cheddar cheese, making cheese the most concentrated form of casein in food. The casomorphins in all this casein is what makes cheese addicting.
Tracking Consumers by the Numbers
Back in 1909, when the USDA began keeping track of American eating habits, the average American ate less than four pounds of cheese a year. By 1960 this had doubled to slightly over eight pounds a year, but our cheese consumption was only beginning to skyrocket. By 2013, the average American ate over 33 pounds of cheese every year. Compared to our national baseline, that’s about 30 extra pounds of cheese a year per person. This comes to 55,000 excess calories per person every year, and these truly are excess calories. Research confirms that cheese-eaters take in more calories than those who don’t eat cheese.
Most of those excess calories are fat calories. These fat calories are easily stored as extra fat in our muscle cells, our liver, and other internal organs. When a person eats excess fat, not only is it easier for the body to simply store it away as fat, but this fat slows down cellular metabolism. Slowed-down metabolism burns fewer calories, making it harder to lose excess weight. It’s a vicious circle. It’s hard – though not impossible – for obese people to lose this excess weight.
The obesity epidemic in America follows our rising cheese consumption closely. The correlation is strong and the health consequences are severe, as we will see. First, it’s worth noting that cheese protein is associated with various health problems. We’re already seen that casein is highly concentrated in cheese. Besides its addicting quality, it may have negative effects on the immune system. Barnard cites striking examples of how asthma, allergies, migraine headaches, joint pains, skin problems, and digestive problems can improve dramatically when cheese and other dairy products are stopped.
The high saturated fat content of cheese contributes to many of our most serious health problems. Barnard explains the scientific evidence for this clearly. I’ll simply note that obesity, pre-diabetes, and diabetes have become epidemic diseases in the past 40 years, while heart disease, hypertension and others are also linked to increased cheese consumption. None of this is good for health or for ever-growing disease care costs in our country. Yet the troubling truth is that our government goes out of its way to promote cheese consumption with the myth that cheese is good for health.
The government created a federal board for dairy promotions in 1983 and later consolidated its dairy promotion programs under Dairy Management Inc. DMI collects money from dairy producers to promote dairy products, including cheese. This dairy-promoting fund comes to about $140 million a year now. In the year 2000, Dick Cooper, vice president of cheese marketing for DMI, revealed DMI’s secret plan to boost cheese sales across America. The plan, “Trigger the cheese craving,” shows that the dairy industry understands cheese’s power. DMI contracted with Wendy’s, Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Taco Bell, and other fast food chains to market addicting cheesy foods.
Barnard documents all of this in his book. He also explodes several dairy industry myths, including the myth that dairy products help with weight loss, the myth that drinking milk builds strong bones, and the myth that chocolate milk enhances athletic performance. None of these myths are supported by sound science. Good research done independently of the dairy industry does not support any of these myths.
The National Dairy Council (NDC) Buys Influence
The dairy industry spends big money to influence public opinion. NDC is the top sponsor for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the organization of professional nutritional counselors. The group, “Dietitians for Professional Integrity,” does not approve of this arrangement. Commercial sponsorship of this and other health organizations creates conflicts of interest. Health organization policy statements say sponsors don’t influence them. Barnard’s wry observation is that sponsors clearly don’t believe this.
A Healthy Diet
The book’s final three chapters give readers tools to help them escape the cheese trap. Barnard outlines the basic principles of a healthy diet and provides tasty alternatives for many kinds of cheese dishes. The last chapter is full of good recipes for anyone moving to a healthy diet.
This book is excellent for anyone who wishes to understand how health problems are connected to cheese. I learned a lot from this book. It tells us why and how to minimize cheese in our diet. I recommend The Cheese Trap for anyone who would like to break the cheese habit.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
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This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume IX, No. 3 • June 10, 2017.