Cheese. Milk. Ice cream. What would life be like without them you ask?
Let me provide a whimsical answer to your question.
Cheese, oh cheese. I do love thee.
But when I eat thee, my cells do scream.
Is it your saturated fat
or pregnant cow hormones?
That do such harm to me?
According to the USDA, the average American may have consumed upwards of 40 lbs of cheese in the last year. They on average may also be downing about 141 lbs of milk (roughly around 16 gallons) annually, and close to 20lbs of ice cream or other frozen dairy treats.
In 1909, when the USDA began tracking American eating habits, annual cheese consumption was only about 4 lbs.
After doing some simple googling, we can discover that 40 lbs of mozzarella (as a lot of American cheese intake comes from pizza) is about 50,000 extra calories a year. Which if you are an average person needing around 2,000 calories a day, would mean you are consuming enough calories for 25 extra days every year. No wonder our waistlines keep growing as we age.
Just for fun, we looked up the number of pounds of apples Americans eat per year on average, and it was only 16 lbs.
So, why is it concerning that Americans (and we will extend this to Canadians as well!) eat so many dairy products. Well, according to doctor Neal Barnard, his and others research and many personal anecdotes from friends and patients link dairy foods to a wide variety of health complications. Below are listed just some that have been linked to cheese consumption:
Asthma/ respiratory disorders
Hormonal imbalances and infertility
Diabetes (types 1 and 2)
Wow. It's crazy to think that something so common could possibly be behind diseases like seasonal allergies, or migraines! No wonder no one thinks to try avoiding dairy to treat something so serious. Many of us grew up eating cheese, and blamed our genetics, not our diet, for these diseases.
Nutrition, or Ammunition?
So what in dairy, and specifically in cheese, is so bad?
Well, dairy is a rich source of saturated fat, the kind that raises cholesterol and leads to heart disease. When you concentrate that diary into butter, cheese, or ice cream, you are leading to that product being made almost entirely out of fat. Most cheeses are about 70% fat. They are also a source of sodium, cholesterol, and hormones from the pregnant cow who produced that milk.
Many dietitians are guilty of saying that cheese is a good source of protein and calcium, and therefore makes a good snack for a person with diabetes. But let's take a look at the numbers.
According to the USDA, 1 oz of cheddar cheese (1 small cube) has 9 grams of fat (81 of those 114 calories), 30 mg of cholesterol (that's 30 mg more than you need), 176 mg of sodium (the recommendation is to keep daily amount under 2,000 daily), 0 grams of fiber, and 7 grams of protein. Sadly, 1 oz of cheese only has 20% of the daily value for calcium.
Let's instead look at a common alternative, that is still high in fat and is also recommended as a snack, but that is entirely plant-based- almonds!
For 1 oz (23 almonds), you get 164 calories, 14 grams of fat (most of which are safer mono and poly-unsaturated as opposed to saturated), 3.5 grams of fiber, 6 grams of protein, 0 grams of cholesterol, about 8% the daily value of calcium, and traces of a wide variety of vitamins and minerals needed for daily life. And the good news is that when almonds are eaten raw, some of the fat will naturally pass through your system without being absorbed due to the way it is bound in fiber. Cheese has no fiber, which means ALL the calories are absorbed and are really easy for your body to store as fat.
Have you heard that diabetes is actually caused by fat? So when health professionals recommend a product like cheese to their patients who are overweight, diabetic, or have heart disease, they are not doing them any favors, but are helping them stay trapped in thier disease patterns.
Cheese and Disease
What else in cheese is so bad? Have you ever heard of a compound called casomorphin? It's a fragment of the milk protein casein, which can and does in fact bind to the same receptors in our brain as opiates. The fact that cheese is high in sodium may also be contributing to a dopamine reward pathway in our brains. This may just be the key to explaining why people who LOVE cheese can't seem to break the habit. They are rewarded with good feelings every time they give in. Sadly, these same people usually also lament their struggles with weight loss and health concerns. The two are not unrelated!
Cheese contributes to saturated fat and cholesterol, which in turn contributes to obesity and inflammation which in turn contributes to almost all our health diseases (many of which are rooted in obesity and inflammation) such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a litany of diseases that are becoming more common like IBS and Chrons. Cheese and high-fat dairy are a source of exogenous (outside the body) cholesterol. Our bodies already make all the cholesterol they could possibly need, so having excess from our food only leads to an increased risk for heart disease. They are also high in saturated fat, the type associated with raising cholesterol and increasing our risk for heart disease and diabetes.
But wait, you may ask, "if you are at a healthy weight and disease-free, is it okay to eat dairy?". Well as I mentioned, dairy products are also a source of hormones that are similar enough to our own to cause things to go haywire in our bodies.
One of those hormones is insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1), a hormone in our bodies that promotes growth. When you are a child, this hormone when produced by your own body is helpful (or else we would all stay babies forever!). But when we start taking in IGF-1 from dairy products, even as a child, growth happens more rapidly which is not necessarily a good thing. Any growth happening at a rate higher than our natural processes would allow becomes a possibility for abnormal growth to occur.
Some other dairy hormones and proteins have also been indicated in infertility, which makes sense when you think about a majority of dairy coming from pregnant cows (hello estrogen and progesterone), and that dairy is a rich source of cholesterol and saturated fat (implicated in male infertility). Nothing is guaranteed, but you may find success in becoming pregnant by avoiding this food group and choosing a more plant-based diet.
Dairy and Children
In high-risk children, drinking milk early in life may actually increase their risk of developing Type 1 diabetes. Recent research also refutes the myth that milk promotes bone health. One review showed that there was no protective effect of milk on bones in girls, and another study showed drinking more milk actually increases a woman's risk for bone fractures later in life.
If we stepped away from the scientific argument for a moment, it is still easy to see why dairy is not ideal for children. Dairy in the high quantities that most children consume (2-3 glasses a day and cheese as a staple in meals) leaves very little room for other MORE nutritious foods in their diets. Because dairy is high calorie, children may not consume sufficient amounts of iron and other micronutrients from plants while overconsuming protein, fat, and lactose.
The dairy-cancer link
In men, excessive dairy intake has been associated with higher prostate cancer risk. This is likely due to the excessive calcium associated with overconsuming dairy, but could also be due to "pathogens" found in milk and meat from cows that can cause an inflammatory reaction in prostate (and breast) tissues, such as the bovine leukemia virus.
In women, just drinking one cup of milk per day was associated with a 50% higher breast cancer risk, and drinking 2-3 cups per day increased risk further to 70-80%. While the associations were not strong for cheese and yogurt, they seemed to be consistent whether the person was drinking high fat or low-fat/skim milk. However, swapping it with soy milk was associated with a reduced risk of cancer.
Is it too late? Someone may ask, "but I've already had breast cancer, does it make a difference at this point?". While the research is less conclusive for low-fat dairy, high fat (like that in cheese, cream, ice cream, etc) has been associated with higher all-cause death and may be implicated in cancer recurrence. In summary, you can prevent your likelihood of dying from all types of death, not just cancer, by avoiding high-fat dairy, and possibly dairy altogether.
With all that could possibly go wrong with consuming dairy, is it worth the risk? My opinion is... no, it's not worth the risk to consume dairy on a daily basis. On occasion or even by accident likely won't affect your health significantly, but daily consumption, especially of high-fat dairy products like cheese, cream, and ice cream, could negatively impact your health, and therefore should be avoided.
It's a new era, we are more health-conscious and more eco-conscious than ever. Dairy not only can negatively impact your health but negatively affects our environment. Cattle are estimated to contribute 11% of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions, much of which comes from the dairy industry. Plant-based alternatives may produce 1/3 the GHG emissions to make, and in many ways are superior for health.
If that's not enough, there are many delicious alternatives to creams, cheeses, sauces, and other traditionally dairy-laden foods on the market for your convenience. And if you have the time, there are thousands of recipes for dairy alternatives you can make at home.
Once I switched to dairy alternatives, I found I actually preferred them to real cheese, milk, and cream. I often felt better, had less grogginess and GI discomfort, and learned to prefer the taste. Now, if I happen to forget to order my latte with soy or oat milk, I am almost repulsed at the taste of real milk. And don't get me started on homemade nice cream or even store-bought vegan ice cream to replace ice cream when I have the craving.
Needless to say, it may seem impossible to stop eating dairy- especially cheese- but it's not. If it's your style to go slow, then start swapping out things little by little. If you are tired of cheese's negative addictive power over you, cut it out all at once. The craving should leave within a week or so.
Find freedom from the negative ways dairy can impact your life and the planet and jump into a kinder way of living. Kinder on your body, kinder on the planet: go plant-based.
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