I’ve long been a proponent for staying away from processed foods, but I’ll be the first to admit the lines get blurred when it comes to cheese.
Besides being rich in calcium, many cheeses are made through a culturing and fermentation process and certain soft cheeses are an excellent source of probiotics.
Some cheeses (the ones I prefer) are artisanal products – handmade, local and organic if at all possible. I don’t consider them a “processed” food. But by volume, most of the cheese sold in the U.S. is a factory product. Is cheese good for us, and if so, which ones? I’ve taken a closer look at the issue…
An addictive substance?
Dr. Neal Barnard, president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, came out with a book earlier this year called The Cheese Trap: How Breaking a Surprising Addiction Will Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Get Healthy.
In no uncertain terms, he makes the case that this “dairy crack” is wreaking havoc on our health. As he puts it, cheese is both fattening and addictive. It’s packed with calories, full of cholesterol, and strewn with hormones.
I can answer some of those objections. I don’t worry much about fat calories. Carbs are a greater problem by far. If you need to cut calories, cut carbs.
Hormones? Eat organic cheese from the milk of animals that haven’t been given hormones. Cholesterol? Cholesterol in our food is no problem. It has nothing to do with our blood levels of cholesterol.
Still, Dr. Barnard brings up some interesting angles. He points out that casein, a protein specific to milk products, actually has opiate molecules in it. So every time you eat it, you’re effectively getting dosed with a small bit of a drug. I didn’t know that. Maybe it explains why I love milk products!
Casein is found in cow’s milk and every other mammalian milk, but it’s concentrated in cheese. Many people are allergic to it.
Also on the negative side of the ledger, cheese has been linked to migraines, joint pains, and hormonal imbalances.
Our love affair with cheese
Cheese is no small deal if you live in the U.S. This country produces more cheese than anywhere else in the world, because we buy it and we love it. But cheese helps make us fat and contributes to a host of other diseases.
Naturally, the National Dairy Council sees things differently. In a request for comment about Dr. Barnard’s book, a spokesperson for the council stated that “cheese contains nutrients like protein, calcium, phosphorus, and B vitamins…” and that “Cheese in moderation can be part of a healthy eating plan meeting total fat, saturated fat, and sodium recommendations.”1
Of course, that same dairy spokesperson goes on to say, “The idea that any food, including cheese, can be addictive in the same way as any drug is misleading and will only add to consumer confusion about healthy eating.” Remind me to introduce that fellow to MSG and sugar!
One thing that gives me pause over ditching cheese entirely is that it’s a reliable way to get calcium. Depending on the type of cheese, you can get as much as 200 mg calcium per ounce.
Calcium and cancer
So if you’re keen to give up cheese, you’ll need a way to replace it as a calcium source. There’s a wealth of evidence to show that calcium helps lower your risk of certain cancers.
The exact mechanism isn’t well understood, but we know that in the case of colorectal cancer, calcium binds to fatty acids and bile acids in the gastrointestinal tract, which makes something called “calcium soaps” (insoluble complexes). These soaps make it hard for those acids to harm cells in the lining of the colon. Plus, they prompt new cell proliferation to help repair any existing damage.
In a study of Nebraska women that combined calcium supplementation with vitamin D supplements for four years, women were 60 percent less likely to have any type of cancer compared to those in a control group.
Other studies showed the possibility of calcium from dairy products reducing the risk of ovarian cancer, but that result wasn’t found across all studies, and didn’t look at the same possible effect of calcium from nondairy sources.
I also have to note – for the benefit of the small number of people who don’t know this already – that a vast number of people are lactose intolerant. They shouldn’t be consuming any dairy products at all. Nonwhites are more likely than whites to be lactose intolerant, but anyone can have this problem.
How do you safely get calcium?
There’s a decent calcium intake calculator on the WebMD site that lets you figure out how much calcium is in the foods you eat, so that’s a good starting point if you want to see where you are now.
To safely boost your calcium intake, I recommend looking at nondairy foods that have surprisingly high levels of the nutrient. For example, a cup of frozen turnip greens puts you at 249 mg. One cup of black-eyed peas brings in 211 mg. Here are some other good nondairy calcium sources:
- Chia seeds, poppy seeds, and sesame seeds
- Sardines and canned salmon
- Beans and lentils
- Leafy greens like collards and spinach
- Edamame and tofu
Or enjoy some of the ingenious cheese replacements made from nut butters, non-dairy plant milks, and coconuts.
In contrast to the dubious benefits of cheese, there a substance found in food that’s good for us beyond doubt – vitamin K2. If you’re not up to speed on this important nutrient, read the article below.