The short answer is, unfortunately, yes. If you have been craving cheese all the time, you could actually have a cheese addiction. A 2015 study from the National Library of Medicine found that there are foods that can become difficult to break away from. (1)
For better and worse, cheese is a staple of the American diet. We socialize with pizza or cheese plates, and we put cheese on burgers and sandwiches starting in childhood. Some people find it hard to stop eating it even when they want to. So, what's the science behind this issue?
How Does Cheese Affect Your Brain?
Turns out, cheese affects your brain like a drug. According to Dr. Neal Barnard, author of the book The Cheese Trap, claims that "Cheese contains concentrated opiates, along with salt and grease, [which] keep us hooked." Apparently, cheese contains more than one property that makes us keep going back for more.
Scientists from the University of Michigan found that pizza is one of the most addictive foods. Other addictive food items include turkey, legumes, and probiotics.
Casomorphins and Casein
Casein is one of the prominent dairy proteins, and the concentration of it is high in cheese. As you digest and break down casein, your body turns it into something called casomorphins. These compounds attach to the brain receptors that narcotics and heroin attach to, releasing dopamine. (2)
In nature, the purpose of casomorphins is to make sure the babies of mammals drink breast milk from their mothers. For that reason, the substance triggers your reward and pleasure centers. The more dairy products you eat, the more you crave.
Cheddar cheese is one of the worst culprits, containing the most concentrated amounts of protein.
More Addictive Properties
Cheddar also contains another addictive property—fat. According to one study, foods with high-fat content and high levels of processing can result in cravings. Milk products, in general, contain a lot of fat, calories, and sodium. Eating cheesy pastas or nachos can give you more sodium than a bag of potato chips.
Cheese protein is also linked to the obesity epidemic in the United States. Evidence shows that vegetarians who avoid cheeses lose more weight than those who do not.
Is it Safe to Eat Cheese?
While your cheese addiction may seem strange, it isn't necessarily destructive. Cheese is high in calories, but it's also a source of calcium and protein content. It could also possibly reduce inflammation and have some benefits for heart health. (3) As with most food groups, it's best to eat it in moderation.
However, some people choose to avoid cheese for many reasons. People who are vegan, plant-based, or care about animal welfare may avoid dairy protein altogether. Cheese may also negatively affect a person with high blood pressure.
Lastly, some humans are lactose intolerant, so anything with dairy (such as ice cream or cheese) can trigger digestion issues. Pay attention to the effect the food has on your body and adjust your lifestyle accordingly.
Consider alternatives such as nut cheese to mitigate your cravings.
Casomorphins are an opiate compound in cheese casein that releases into our bodies during digestion. These opiates interact with our dopamine receptors, making us feel pleasure. It's this factor, combined with fat, salt, and processing that makes cheese one of the most addictive foods in the grocery store.
According to researchers, food can operate a lot like drugs when it comes to the effects on our minds. Studies of Americans from the National Institutes of Health show that the dairy food group can spark addictive eating behaviors and food cravings. Other addictive items include:
If you are constantly craving the taste of cheese, you may want to find some cheese alternatives. There are plenty of plant-based cheeses out there, and you can make the change to an alternative made from nuts or soy. Some people even use nutritional yeast in pasta or soup. That way, you still enjoy the flavor of your favorite things without feelings of guilt.
Another option for someone trying to change their habits is to quit cold turkey. It will be a challenge, but experts claim that your body will crave the stuff less if you take a long break.
Finally, if you aren't ready to stop or go plant-based, try cutting back when you snack. Switch to low protein cheeses and stay away from cheddar, romano, parmesan, and cottage cheese. According to research, those have the highest levels of casein.
Unfortunately, yes. There are many horror stories of people who experienced withdrawal symptoms when they let go of dairy. If you've consumed cheese all of your life, it becomes a habit that your body will expect. For example, you may experience a number of odd feelings such as loss of energy and an unsettled mind.
And of course, you'll feel like your body needs dairy in order to function. Everyone is different. If you have problems, ask your doctor for advice and tips. Find recipes for your favorite food that do not include cheese.
Final Thoughts - Taking Care of Cheese Cravings
No one wants to feel dependents on certain foods. Even though it isn't necessarily harmful, a person may want to quit eating cheese for lifestyle purposes, different diets, or to lower their risk of certain diseases. Dairy has made news headlines many times for being addictive, and grocery stores don't make it easy to resist the temptation.
Cheese may be a problem for you if you are trying to reach weight loss goals or go vegan. Otherwise, there is nothing wrong with having a slice or two on bread every so often or a cheesy meal. Just try not to overdo it!
Schulte, E. M., Avena, N. M., & Gearhardt, A. N. (2015). Which foods may be addictive? The roles of processing, fat content, and glycemic load. PloS one, 10(2), e0117959. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0117959
Peuhkuri, K., Sihvola, N., & Korpela, R. (2011). Dietary proteins and food-related reward signals. Food & nutrition research, 55, 10.3402/fnr.v55i0.5955. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v55i0.5955
Kim, J. H., Kim, Y., Kim, Y. J., & Park, Y. (2016). Conjugated Linoleic Acid: Potential Health Benefits as a Functional Food Ingredient. Annual review of food science and technology, 7, 221–244. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-food-041715-033028