Cheese is one of America’s (and the world’s) favorite foods. The ooy gooey, salty, fat is so popular it even has its own memes. It’s in and on everything (have you noticed?), thanks in part to the government having WAY too much of it due to subsidies and industry realizing that they can add it to cardboard and people will happily eat it. And of course, there is the mistaken belief that the calcium and protein in it is good for us. Most people believe cheese is a great snack, ingredient or even a meal. Except it’s not.
Let’s start by being clear what milk (less concentrated cheese) is supposed to do: Make sure a 60-pound calf keeps coming back to be fed and turns into a 400-pound animal in about six months. According to BeefTalk calves should have an average daily weight gain of 2 pounds per day during the growing season. How could anything that is supposed to cause that kind of weight gain do anything but cause weight gain? Especially in a concentrated form.
How does cheese makes you fat?
The average American eats 33 pounds of cheese a year and almost three quarters of that is calories from fat. It is much easier for your body to store fat than use it as energy. So, if you’re taking in more energy (calories) than your body needs, it will be stored on your belly, butt and even under your chin (or anywhere else your body can find to stash it). For comparison, if you eat pure sugar, your body has to turn those carbohydrate calories into fat (burning calories to do so) before it can be stored. Humans are nothing if not efficient machines. Carbohydrates are made for burning and fat is made for storing and given the option, your body will do exactly that.
You might be thinking, “Well I just won’t take in too many calories so my body will burn the cheese and all will be merry. Sadly, no.
Will cheese raise cholesterol?
The short answer is, yes. But it might not be the way you think it does. There is cholesterol in cheese. However, some studies suggest the eating cholesterol isn’t what causes high cholesterol directly. The problem is that foods (all animal products) that are high in cholesterol are also high in saturated fat. The National Cancer Institute ranks cheese as the top source of cholesterol raising fat in the American diet. So, it might be the saturated fat and not the cholesterol itself that is causing the rise in your cholesterol. This has led the dairy association to say the relationship between cheese and cholesterol is “complicated.” But really, it’s not. Eating cheese leads to higher blood level cholesterol. How it does it is just semantics.
Will cheese raise insulin?
All food raises blood sugar (glucose). That’s what food is supposed to do because that is what keeps the body alive. A raise in blood sugar causes insulin to go up because that is how the glucose is moved out of the blood and into the cells as energy. Usually carbohydrates get a bad name for raising blood sugar (it’s not bad but that will have to be a different post). Cheese has a low glycemic index so you might think it doesn’t spike blood sugar and thus insulin. But according to an article in the British Journal of Nutrition, dairy (ie cheese) has disproportionately high insulin index (the pancreas secretes more insulin than you’d expect based on the glycemic index). It is thought to be caused by the protein in milk (casein and whey) rather than the fat. In short, yes cheese will raise insulin levels more than you would expect.
Why does cheese cause constipation?
This is another reason why eating cheese makes you “fat.” It keeps your body from “taking out the trash.” A healthy colon will move about one pound of poop a day (give or take). However, if you’re not getting the fiber you need things slow down, like WAY down. To the tune of not pooping for more than two weeks. Obviously, that’s and issue for your health and will show up on the scale. Because cheese is all fat and protein there is nothing (fiber) to help it move through the system. And things don’t function like they should. This is another place where the industry says silly things like, “Cheese doesn’t cause constipation. Lack of fiber does.” That like saying, “Putting water in your gas tank doesn’t cause your car to not run. Lack of gasoline does.” If fiber causes the system to work well then things without fiber cause it to work poorly. It should also be noted that fiber is what grabs onto the bile produced by your liver to remove toxins from your body. When the system is slow, those toxins can be reabsorbed into the blood stream. Cheese is not grabbing any bile and toxins on its slow march out.
Why is cheese addictive?
I previously mentioned that cheese has a protein in it called “casein.” Casein is present in all mammal milk. It turns into casomorphin (an opioid compound) in the stomach. It is the reason a baby relaxes and often goes to sleep after nursing. It makes them feel good and signals to the brain that they should come back for more. Really good for the survival of the baby and the species. Not so good for adults eating cheese. For reference, the protein in human milk is about 40% casein and 60% whey. Cow’s milk is 80% casein and 20% whey. You can see right there we might have a problem. Now consider that the whey is removed during the cheese making process (that “trash” is what whey protein powder is made out of). All that is left in cheese is casein protein. If casein turns into an opioid compound and the protein in cheese is straight casein, it follows that cheese has addictive characteristics. Trust me when I say, this is very clear in the ugly backlash we get from suggesting that cheese is not a healthy choice.
Cheese and hormones
Milk comes from cows (most often) and usually pregnant cows. Consider the hormones that course through a woman’s body when she’s pregnant. It’s no different with cows and it ends up in their milk and therefore in cheese. Various types of estrogen are the most common. And the further along in her pregnancy a cow is, the higher those hormones are in her milk.
But the normal cow hormones aren’t the only hormone you’ll find. There is also bovine growth hormone (rBST) produced by Monsanto (yes same group that gave us RoundUp). So that’s in the milk (don’t worry. Monsanto says it’s safe because it’s really not very much). Then the cows have to be treated for the infections that are a side effect of the growth hormone, so add antibiotics.
If you buy organic cheese at least all you’re getting is pregnant cow hormones and (in theory) not the other human-added stuff.
Cheese and cancer
Maybe you’re thinking, “All of that being true, organic cheese in moderation can still be part of a healthy diet.” (I do not have the space to get into “moderation” = hitting yourself with a smaller hammer and “healthy diet” having no useful definition at all.) Let’s talk about what the science shows about our “friend” casein and its link to cancer growth.
Dr T Colin Campbell did years of research in his lab at Cornell university. Studying rats, he found that cancer promotion (ie growth) can be turned on and off depending on the amount of casein in the diet. 5% casein = cancer off. 20% casein = cancer on. But that was rats. Maybe that can’t be generalized to humans. Dr Campbell went on to be involved in the largest human epidemiological (incidence, distribution, and control of disease) study ever done. In summary of years and years of work: Increased animal protein (including casein) consumption = increased cancer rates. If you are interested in the details I highly recommend his book, The China Study. (Be warned that he is a PhD so it is a bit dense. But if you want facts, read it or listen to the audio version. It is VERY good.)
How cheese is produced
If you are convinced that cheese (and dairy in general) should not be a part of a healthy diet, you can stop reading now. If you’d like even more reasons, keep reading. But I’ll warn you, what comes next is not very appetizing.
Cheese might be the most processed “food” on the planet. It starts out as grass (hopefully but more likely soy and/or corn and other not-plant stuff they feed cows). It goes through the cow’s digestion process (being chewed, burped up and chewed again, through four stomachs) and by “magic” gets turned into milk. It takes a gallon-plus of milk to create a pound of cheddar. A Holstein (black and white milk cow) produces about six gallons of milk a day. But since not all cows are in the same place in their milk production cycle and their current pregnancy, not all milk is created equal. Clearly the end-result cheese has to be consistent so each truck load of milk is “standardized.” That means adding cream, skim milk or skim milk powder, adjusting the color (usually with a tree extract) and pasteurizing (heating to kill bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria).
Okay, we have a wading pool of milk that has been adjusted to the needed balance. Now we need a way to breakdown the proteins. Bacteria, mold or yeast are commonly added (yes, we killed bacteria with pasteurizing and now we are adding different bacteria). If you’ve ever smelled cheese and thought stinky feet or dirty gym bag, that’s because it’s the same bacteria (yes really).
What do you think is the best way to get liquid milk to separate into liquid whey and solid curd? If you guessed the enzyme from a calf’s stomach, you’d be right. Although now they sometimes use a bacteria (yes another one) and fungi which produce the enzyme and for softer cheeses acids like vinegar can be used.
The whey is drained off and sold to body builders and the public who have been brainwashed to believe they need more protein in their lives (We used to be among them. I cannot tell you how much money we spent on whey protein in the decades we used it). The curds are pressed it into molds to remove more of the whey, allowed to age, more bacteria is added if needed, then salt is added to stop the growth of the bacteria (cheese is in the top 10 sources of sodium in the American diet) and eventually, it is wrapped up and shipped out to you as food with some serious marketing thrown in for good measure.
The final word
Cheese is clearly not a health food. It’s not the source of good protein we’ve been led to believe. The dairy industry has its talons deep in government policy. The work by Dr Campbell and others has been buried or had mud slung at it. And even though are at RnR Journey we don’t often talk about the ethical treatment of animals or the environment, things are bad on that front too.
We are often asked, “Do you miss cheese?” Sometimes, especially on a fasting day (like today) when I see videos on social media of recipes dripping in cheese my brain says, “You know, we used to really like that.” And sometimes something reminds me of the Friday evenings by the fire with Russ, a bottle of wine and blocks of cheese and I think, “That used to be fun.” To say, “No I never miss it” wouldn’t be entirely true. But it’s kinda like thinking about something fun you used to do with an ex. Just because you had some fun times doesn’t mean you’d take your ex back.
I’ve laid out the truth about cheese as plainly and honestly as I can based on the vast amount of research I’ve done. What you choose to do with it, is up to you.
For more details about the risks of consuming cheese we highly recommend Dr Neal Barnard’s book The Cheese Trap. It also happens to have some really great recipes in the back.
Dr Robyn is a former competitive volleyball player turned psychologist with continuing education in nutrition. Russ is a former competitive bodybuilder and trainer on the Mr. Olympia Tour. They are the co-founders of Whole Food Muscle and the authors of How to Feed a Human The Whole Food Muscle Way. To work with them one on one to improve your health and fitness or to have them speak at your event or organization email them at Health@RnRJourney.com.