Cheese is not a health food. Seventy percent of its calories come from fat that is mostly saturated. In fact, cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the U.S. diet, and a diet high in saturated fat increases the risk for heart disease.
Yet everything I hear in the media and even from some other dietitians is saying otherwise, usually calling cheese “a healthy snack” that’s “high in protein.” But here is how that plays out in real life: people now think that you can eat protein in unlimited quantities without any consequences, and they’ll sit down with a block of cheese, a sleeve of Ritz crackers and maybe some pepperoni, and the next thing they know, they’ve sliced off half the block of cheese and eaten almost all the crackers. So that “healthy snack” has now cost them almost 1000 calories, or more.
Something interesting happens in the human psyche when people start labeling foods good or bad – an all or nothing scenario starts to play out where “bad” foods are verboten (and intake of often results in guilt-ridden binges) and “good” foods are looked at as an opportunity for an eating free-for-all. I’ve seen this happen with cheese over and over again – people tell themselves it’s good for them, which is the green light they’ve been looking for to indulge.
Which explains part of why cheese intake in America has tripled since 1970 – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. The truth is that cheese has morphine-like compounds in it called casomorphins. In fact, all animal milks contain these compounds – nature put them there to make sure baby animals would come back for more thereby growing big and strong. Casomorphins aren’t addictive like drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, but they do act on the same part of the brain responsible for that “ahhh,” feel-good feeling. So when my patients tell me they can’t stop eating cheese, there really is a reason!
You don’t have to avoid cheese entirely, though: try limiting your cheese intake to 1-2 ounces daily, and choose light or 2% milk varieties. One ounce is usually the size of a typical slice or string cheese. Use a kitchen scale and measure your portions, or simply take an eight-ounce block and cut it into eight equal portions. Order your pizza with half as much cheese, since this is where we get our largest amounts. And as for those sneaky casomorphins, ask yourself – who’s deciding what you eat? You, or the food?