Is Cheese the Dairy Version of Crack?


Patients observing Cinco de Mayo should consider the potentially addictive properties of their celebratory nachos and quesadillas.

Patients observing Cinco de Mayo should consider the potentially addictive properties of their celebratory nachos and quesadillas.

A joint study conducted by researchers from the University of Michigan and Colorado State University and published in PLOS One used the Yale Food Addiction Scale—a 25-item self-report measure developed to identify those who may be most likely to exhibit markers of substance dependence—in order to determine the common denominator among “addictive” foods.

They found that highly processed foods like cheese were most associated with food addiction. In particular, they uncovered that casein, or protein fragments found in dairy products, could trigger the brain’s opioid receptors, which are responsible for addiction. Those receptors then release opiates called casomorphins.

These findings provide a viable explanation for why pizza, nachos, and other cheesy foods can be irresistible. In fact, a report card released by the Center for Science in the Public Interest revealed that today’s Americans eat 23 pounds of cheese per year on average, which is 3 times the amount Americans consumed in 1970.

Neal Barnard, MD, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, is widely credited for likening cheese to “dairy crack.”

“Casomorphins attach to the brain’s opiate receptors to cause a calming effect in much the same way heroin and morphine do,” Dr. Barnard told Vegetarian Times.

The operationalization of the term “food dependence” continues to be a subject of debate in science, but health care professionals should consider the possibility that addictive eating behaviors may be at play among patients who are unable to lose weight.

Given the prevalence of cheese products, pharmacists should make sure to counsel patients taking antibiotics about the potentially dangerous food-drug interaction with calcium-rich foods. Antibiotics can bind to the calcium in milk, forming an insoluble substance in the stomach and upper small intestine that the body is unable to absorb.

The potential addictive properties of cheese shouldn’t be a death wish for those who wish to celebrate Cinco de Mayo with (loosely traditional) Mexican foods. As is true with any unhealthy food, moderation is key.

However, adults wishing to completely avoid cheese while still being festive can choose to enjoy margaritas instead, although alcohol consumption has its own set of risks.

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