Is Cheese As Addicting as Heroin? How This Beloved Food Changes Your Brain

Rose Bak

Some doctors say that cheese impacts you the same as oxycontin, crack cocaine and other opiates.

Photo by Elisa Michelet on Unsplash

Do you know what’s harder than going vegan? Re-starting a vegan diet after years away from it.

My roommate and I decided to do a vegan November. Or “Veganember” as I started calling it. My roommate has resisted this term, but then again she’s no fun.

Anyway, we have both been feeling a little unwell lately and thought doing a month of a vegan diet would help us re-set a bit.

Honestly, it sounded pretty easy. I’ve done this before. I was a vegetarian for over twenty years, and I went in and out of veganism multiple times over those years. Inevitably it was the siren song of cheese that pulled me back to straight vegetarianism.

Ten years ago I completely abandoned my vegetarian diet. I was doing a lot of running, participating in at least marathon or half marathon every month, and I got pretty anemic. No matter what I ate or what type of iron supplement I took, I just couldn’t get my ferritin levels up.

I started eating meat again, not excessively, but a few times a week.

Fast forward to now, and I haven’t been running since an injury sidelined me several years ago. The more sedentary lifestyle packed on the pounds I had lost when I was running, and working at home the last nine months made it easier to snack during the day.

My snack of choice? Cheese.

Cheese sticks. Cheese and crackers. Cream cheese on a bagel. Really, any cheese would do.

And possibly some ice cream for dessert. Ah, ice cream, my second favorite dairy product.

My roommate has always been vegetarian, but like me, she had developed the habit of eating a lot of cheese. We were at the point where we were buying those giant Costco bags of cheese and moving through them quickly. Even though we both eat a lot of vegetables, clearly it wasn’t enough to cancel out the daily infusions of cheese.

Neither of us felt particularly good. Something needed to change.

So when my roommate suggested we go vegan at least for the month of November, my first thought was, “This should be easy.” After all, we’ve done this before. Many times.

“Plus, fake cheese is so much better than it used to be,” I added confidently.

The last time I was eating a vegan diet, the only fake cheese was slimy soy cheese products that left a weird chemical aftertaste. Now, there’s a plethora of really good fake cheeses. They still aren’t completely like “real” cheese but offerings from companies like VioLife, Myoko’s and Kite Hill are pretty darn good.

Fake cheese has come a long way.

November came, and we replaced our Greek yogurt with coconut yogurt. We replaced our cream cheese with Kite Hill. We replaced our butter with Myoko’s. We put VioLife slices on our sandwich. We bought Coconut Bliss ice cream.

It’s all good. Super expensive, but good. Veganism is not cheap if you’re committed to eating vegan variations of the food you love. The fake dairy products are good, but they’re still not dairy. They’re tasty, but they are just not the same.

Within a few days of eliminating dairy from my diet I was craving dairy like I used to crave a cigarette when I quit smoking years ago.

I was cranky, shaky, my skin was breaking out and I was having gastointestinal issues. And I was completely obsessed with cheese.

I wondered why I was feeling so deprived when I had perfectly suitable dairy replacement products to eat? And why did it feel so much harder to go vegan than it did in the past?

Some people argue that dairy products can be addictive, the same as caffeine or sugar. I’m one of those people.

I’ll admit it, I am a cheese addict.

I decided to do some research to see if others had experienced this. I came across an article titled, “Cheese is So Addictive, One Doctor Calls It Dairy Crack.” The article discusses a book called “The Cheese Trap” by Dr. Neal Barnard. Barnard isn’t some fringe doctor, he’s a professor of medicine at George Washington School of Medicine and the founder of the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Barnard argues that when you eat cheese, the proteins in the cheese act as mild opiates, the same as heroin, vicodin and fentanyl.

The cheese proteins attach to the same parts of the brain that respond to narcotics, producing dopamine — also known as “the feel-good neurotransmitter”. And like other opiates, your body can actually become addicted to cheese.

“Cheese,” Barnard said “is not just tasty. It actually contains concentrated opiates, along with salt and grease, that tend to keep us hooked.”

As I discovered, when I went back to veganism this November, eliminating cheese from your diet can actually trigger withdrawals as your body detoxes from it. The more cheese you were eating, the worse the withdrawals.

What’s the problem with cheese?

Some studies estimate that the average American eats 35 pounds of cheese every year. The top cheese? Mozzarella. Clearly that’s a lot of cheese, and pizza is a big culprit.

Cheese is high in calories, sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol, which doesn’t do any of us any favors when it comes to our health.

In “The Cheese Trap” Barnard references studies showing that men who eat high quantities of cheese tend to have lower sperm counts, and for both genders there is a correlation between cheese consumption and disease like Alzheimer’s, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.

The famous “China Study” also linked cheese to a higher prevalence of many types of cancer.

Cheese isn’t just bad for humans. The production of cheese is big business. Cows are artificially inseminated over and over again to keep them producing milk for the dairy industry. Multiple investigations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other animals’ rights groups have found dairy cows being held in filthy and inhumane conditions.

You never see that in the happy cow advertisements.

What happens to your body when you give up cheese?

Every body is different, but eliminating dairy cheese from your body can have these benefits:

· Reduced bloating

· Clearer skin

· Increased energy

· Better immunity

· Reduced constipation

· Lower cholesterol

· Lower sodium

So, what’s a cheese addict to do?

If you’re ready to remove cheese from your diet, the first thing to consider is weaning yourself from your favorite dairy product. If you go “cold turkey” like I did, you are likely to experience more withdrawal symptoms.

You may also go through a detox period where you notice breakouts or gastrointestinal distress. But stick with it, and you’ll likely start to feel better in a week or two.

Doctors recommend that if you eat cheese, you limit yourself to occasional consumption, and in small amounts.

Will I keep on being vegan after Veganember ends? Mostly.

For me, I always do better mentally if no food is “forbidden” from my diet. I’ll definitely do my annual shipment of deep-dish cheese pizza from my favorite pizza place in Chicago for my birthday, but overall, I’m going to stay off the cheese as much as I can.

Next to tackle? Sugar. Many doctors say that is also addictive. Ugh.

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR

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