The Cheese Conundrum?

            Cheese ranked near the top of my favorite foods until I learned the consequences of eating it and why I liked it so much.  Of course, I wasn’t alone in my love of cheese.  Almost everyone is addicted to it.  As I learned, there is a reason for this unusual fondness, and it’s not the taste.

            America’s love of cheese seems to have no limit.  Fast food restaurants offer cheese with a wide range of menu items.  A suggestion to add more cheese is not unusual.  Especially popular are meat dishes with added cheese.  With this emphasis on added cheese, the average American now eats about 35 pounds of cheese a year.  A generation ago that was closer to 10 pounds a year per person.  A generation before that cheese was rarely eaten.  In part, technology can be blamed for this change in cheese-eating patterns.  With the availability of refrigeration, keeping cheese fresh all year became possible.  Unfortunately, our ability to resist overeating cheese did not evolve along with this advance in technology.

            How cheese went from being a rarity to a dominant food in the American diet is more than a story about refrigeration.  While the widespread availability of refrigeration gave cheese a boost, the bigger influence was a Government policy that promoted American agricultural product sales.  Through a number of programs including direct support to fast-food restaurants, advertising campaigns were created that encouraged cheese consumption.  Want extra cheese on that bacon burger?  Well, to help you answer that question in the affirmative you can thank the Government.  Through joint industry-Government programs, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent helping you say YES!

            For anyone doubting the pervasiveness of cheese in the American diet, a review of notable American cheese dishes is revealing.  For an extensive list of popular cheese dishes, visit Wikipedia’s List of Cheese Dishes.  If dishes like Aligot, Almogrote, Caldo de queso, and Cervelle de canut aren’t part of your regular fare then give yourself a point for nutrition.  Of course, if Mac and Cheese have been your standard fare you lose a point for reasons that might surprise you.

            In an earlier era, small farmers needed Government support and nutrition science was not well understood.  In hindsight, expecting the Department of Agriculture to oversee both food production needs and nutrition advice was not a wise idea.  Fortunately, a wide range of public interest groups now lobbies for change.  Prominent among these organizations you will find the American College of Lifestyle Medicine taking a lead role.  As you might expect, many food industries fearful of losing business still create quite a headwind for change.

            If struggling with weight loss, cheese is one of the best foods to eliminate.  Be warned, it’s not an easy change to pull off.  Cheese, like coffee, alcohol, and tobacco has a sinister side.  Think about it, does anyone really like the taste or smell of cheese or is it fundamentally an acquired addiction?  Have you ever seen an air freshener or perfume that proclaimed its amazing cheese aroma?  Many kinds of cheeses smell no better than stale sock to first timers and yet many desire them.

            So why do we like cheese?  As it happens, part of the reason may be a morphine like chemical naturally occurring when milk is digested.  This extra reward in milk is part of what keeps a calf bonded to mom and rapidly growing.  While cow’s milk is a perfect food for a fast growing calf, it’s hardly the food needed by a country that’s mostly near the last notch of their belt.

            You may wonder how morphine-like compounds get into milk.  If you guessed eating poppies you were wrong.  The morphine-like compounds are created by the calf as the protein casein in milk is digested.  For a calf, this is a nice reminder to stick with mom.  For a human eating cheese, this is a strong reminder to reach for seconds.

            To appreciate why cheese is so different than milk it helps to know that cow’s milk contains about 26 grams of casein per liter compared with about 2.7 grams per liter in human milk.  Then, in the process of making cheese, about ten pounds of milk is used to make one pound of cheese. As a result, the casein in cheese made from cow’s milk is almost 100 times more concentrated than what human milk provides.  This, of course, translates into a remarkable amount of casomorphins.  Granted, the actual effect is a matter of ongoing research about which many questions remain.  What’s not debatable is the remarkable appeal of cheese.  For most, the only food with a stronger appeal is chocolate for which the addictive forming compounds have been extensively studied.

            Cheese also contains the amphetamine-like chemical phenylethylamine (PEA).  Again the higher levels of concentration in cheese are what make the compound suspect.  While proof that PEA is a significant factor remains a matter of ongoing research, one need look no further than the salt and fat content of cheese to find more causes for the strong appeal cheese has on us.  While no one factor may explain the appeal of cheese, the sum of factors that can make cheese appealing points to a type of food that most should expect to have difficulty controlling if they keep it in their diet.

            Perhaps you are thinking, I’m not a cheese addict, I can easily control how much I eat.  For two-thirds of Americans, a trip to the bathroom scales will dispel this fantasy.  For the remainder, a deeper look at the nutritional baggage that comes with cheese is important to consider. For a person deficient in fat with no signs of atherosclerosis, cheese might be an appropriate recommendation.  When I meet that person I’ll let you know.

            Cheese is of course very high in salt.  Two ounces of cheddar cheese has about 350 milligrams of sodium with Velveeta and cottage cheese topping out at a staggering 800-900 milligrams.  The surprising downside is that excess sodium blocks calcium absorption which leads to poor bone formation.  In a Harvard study of 78,000 women, dairy consumption showed no improvement in bone formation.  Although cheese may be only one factor, countries with high cheese consumption also have higher rates of osteoporosis.

            The cholesterol in cheese also presents a special health concern.  If wondering whether this warning applies to you, odds are it does.  Over 100 million Americans now suffer from high cholesterol with many more approaching the danger line each year.  By simply removing dietary cholesterol, most would never need cholesterol-lowering drugs.  Just know that a two-ounce serving of cheddar cheese has about 50-60 milligrams of cholesterol.  On a weight per serving basis, this is about the same amount of cholesterol as in a serving of beef.

            For men, the likelihood of prostate cancer in their later years should be adequate reason to bid milk products and cheese in particular farewell.  The reason is the insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), a naturally occurring hormone that’s similar to insulin.  While IGF-1 is the ticket to success for a young calf that needs to grow fast, it works against us when we become adults by promoting cancer cell growth.  The high calcium content of milk products like cheese adds another nutritional dilemma.  Excess calcium is now believed to block vitamin D from being transported to the bloodstream where it can help slow cancer growth.

            If you are eating more cheese than you like, it may not be entirely your fault.  In the book, “Breaking the Food Seduction -The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings…” by Neal Barnard, MD, he shares several stories that highlight how the Government and industry created programs with no objective other than increasing consumption of cheese. In one program, the Government worked directly with Wendy’s to sell more Cheddar Lover’s Bacon Cheeseburgers. That one program helped sell 2.25 million pounds of cheese during the promotion. That’s 380 tons of fat and 1.2 tons of pure cholesterol.  As for the impact of these Government programs on future healthcare cost, you might ask, “What on earth were they thinking?”

            While the reasons I’ve offered for being wary of cheese in your diet are compelling, one reason I haven’t mentioned dominates all of them.  Quite simply, each calorie that comes from cheese is one calorie that didn’t come from a nutrient-rich plant.  Each bite we take is for health and vitality or for illness.  Sadly, the effects that lead to illness are often long delayed.  This is why I would usually offer the same advice to a thin person as to an overweight person when it comes to cheese.  Unless you are an unusual person, cheese is not your friend.

            Of course, health is more than food.  It’s about all the dimensions of lifestyle including exercise, sleep, stress management, social connections, and connections with nature.  If your morning walk would benefit from a change of scenery then join me Saturday morning at The Jones Farm Park in Southeast Huntsville.

            Nancy Neighbors, MD

Why are Some Cheeses Stinky?

            If you are attracted to body odor, dirty socks, or sour laundry you may have a calling as a cheese connoisseur. This inclination would be especially helpful with the washed-rind family of cheeses.  During the aging process, the rinds of these cheeses are rinsed to inhibit mold and encourage the growth of friendly bacteria. The bacteria, Brevibacterium linens give the rind its aroma.  Brevibacterium is also the bacteria responsible for making feet stink.  Fortunately for cheese lovers, most of the odor comes from the rind.  This leaves only a hint of fetid feet in the cheese.

            One of France’s more famous cheeses, the Camembert, has been described as having strong mushroom notes, hints of garlic, barnyard, and ripe laundry.  Read more in the articles, “The Hunt for the Stinkiest Cheese” and “17 Top Stinky Cheeses.” Of course, stink is in the nose of the beholder.  As for cheeses, one person’s stink can be another person’s treasure.

By Nancy Neighbors, MD

... Dr. Neighbors provides a blend of traditional family medicine and evidence-based lifestyle medicine in Huntsville, Alabama. When indicated, lifestyle change is recommended as the first line of therapy.

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