When people go plant-based, it’s often not the idea of giving up meat that proves difficult. It’s cheese. There’s a reason for that. In a study on food and addiction, Yale researchers found that cheese triggers the same neuroreceptors for pleasure that drugs do since cheese contains casein, a dairy protein that during digestion releases casomorphine, which plays directly on the brain’s dopamine receptors. So if you think you’re addicted to cheese, you probably are. Like most addictions, this one isn’t healthy.
If you have ever tried to give up anything addictive, whether it’s cigarettes, caffeine, or alcohol, you know that there is usually a painful period of withdrawal followed by a sense of improved health and even natural euphoria. The same is true of what happens when you give up burrata, brie, Jarlsberg, or parmesan. First, it’s hard, then you feel so much better. Here’s why.
Dairy is Inflammatory
While a handful of studies have come out to say that dairy is not inflammatory, at least some of those have been funded by milk producers. In “fact-checking” the research and its funding, Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), has found that even a serving a day of dairy is not good for you and that the proteins in dairy are inflammatory, especially if you are among the nearly 70 percent of the world’s population that has some level of lactose malabsorption.
When you stop eating dairy, Barnard asserts, inflammation drops on a cellular level, allowing long-sore joints and swollen body parts to deflate and feel relieved. You may lose your under-eye bags, your skin is likely to clear up and the pain in your joints or muscles will subside. You may also find your face and belly become less bloated, all of which is a healthy reaction after getting rid of an allergen.
Experts estimate that 68 percent of the world’s population suffers from some level of lactose malabsorption, a milder degree of lactose intolerance. The best way to figure out if you are in that group is to cut out dairy, especially cheese, and see how you feel after a week or two.
Lactose Malabsorption Effects 68% of the Population
Lactose malabsorption is more common in certain parts of the world, such as Africa and Asia, where the majority of the population have some level of lactose malabsorption. In northern Europe, many people carry a gene that allows them to digest lactose after infancy but babies can have a very hard time with cow’s milk, and some are sensitive if the lactating mother is eating dairy and cow proteins are in her body.
In the U.S., less than 40 percent of the population has lactose intolerance. Lactose malabsorption is not full-blown lactose intolerance and can cause symptoms that are mild or moderate, but many of those with lactose malabsorption also have lactose intolerance.
Cheese Contains Hormones Like Estrogen
Other than inflammation, which is driven up by eating cheese and goes down when you give up dairy, you may also find that your hormonal balance shifts for the better when you give up dairy, especially cheese. That’s because cheese contains traces of hormones like estrogen and growth hormone, both passed from the lactating cow’s milk to humans, according to Dr. Barnard.
Barnard, who wrote a book called Your Body In Balance: The New Science of Food, Hormones, and Health, has explored the ways that the traces of estrogen in dairy and cheese can impact humans and especially women who have struggled with hormonal problems that affect their periods, fertility, and their endocrine system (as is the case with PCOS).
In his book, Barnard tells stories of patients who have given up dairy and had their symptoms abate and hormonal health restored. While Barnard is not asserting that dairy causes PCOS or that giving up grilled cheese and pizza can cure all menstrual woes, if you look at the overall impact of cheese on the body, less appears to be better, he says.
Back in 2019 Barnard and dozens of other doctors joined together with PCRM to recommend that the FDA require warning labels on cheese, to caution consumers that eating this food raises their risk of breast cancer.
“Dairy products contain traces of estrogens from cows, and as milk is converted to cheese, the estrogens are more concentrated,” according to PCRM. “While they are only traces, they appear to be biologically active in humans, increasing breast cancer mortality.”
Cows Are Injected With Growth Hormones
Dairy cows in the US are routinely injected with Bovine Growth Hormone to increase their production of milk, which is allowed by the FDA, but this also may increase the levels of Insulin Growth Factor-1 that gets passed to humans. IGF-1 promotes cell growth, including cancer cells, according to research published in the UK.
Milk, cheese, yogurt, and anything made from these ingredients can contain varying levels of IGF-1, which regulators at the FDA claim is safe for human consumption. Organic milk does not contain these growth hormones, and neither does non-dairy milk and cheese.
Cows are injected with hormones to keep them lactating for longer and to produce more milk every month. So modern-day milk has more hormones in it than the dairy your grandparents drank from their local old-fashioned dairy farms of a century ago.
The FDA explains that this is completely fine. An article on the government agency’s site called, “Steroid Hormone Implants Used for Growth in Food-Producing Animals” asserts that since the 1950s, the FDA has approved a number of steroid hormone drugs for use in beef cattle and sheep, including natural estrogen, progesterone, testosterone, and their synthetic versions.
Human Health and Growth Hormones in Milk
Since dairy producers started giving cows massive amounts of growth hormones in the early 1990s, consumers have speculated that these trace amounts that get passed to children could have health impacts such as early puberty, antibiotic-resistant infections, and a higher risk of cancer. Studies now find that it’s likely that obesity is a contributing factor to early puberty, but in a study on IGF-1 and cancer, there was a link.
In the UK, a group of researchers found that IGF-1 was linked to the growth of second primary cancers. That means if you are a cancer survivor, IGF appears to find those cells and help them grow.
To quote the study: “IGF-1 is known to promote cancer development by inhibiting apoptosis and stimulating cell proliferation. Epidemiological studies have reported a positive association between circulating IGF-1 levels and various primary cancers, such as breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer,” but they set out to figure out how IGF helps secondary cancers grow. They found that this hormone helps convert normal cells into cancer cells.
Yet the FDA asserts that food or dairy from animals who are given growth hormone is fine, and that “studies have shown that the food from the treated animals is safe for people to eat and that the drugs do not harm the treated animal or the environment.”
If you are eager to avoid growth hormones in your morning coffee or cereal, choose almond, soy, or oat milk instead.
Soy Milk vs Dairy Milk and Cancer
The public’s perception is that soy, which contains plant estrogen, or phytoestrogens, could raise the risk of breast cancer, but in fact, women who eat more soy have less incidence of cancer, studies have found. That’s because phytoestrogens mimic estrogen in a good way and essentially pump the brakes on the body’s estrogen uptake.
In large studies of Asian populations in which the women eat a lot of soy, the evidence is strong that the more soy you eat, the lower your overall risk of breast cancer. Soy appears to have a protective effect in keeping estrogen production in check.
Read More: Does Soy Cause Breast Cancer? Here’s What An Expert Says
One Serving of Dairy a Day Increases Breast Cancer Risk
In a 2021 study that followed nearly 53,000 women for 8 years, tracking daily consumption of milk, a serving a day (or more) was associated with an elevated risk of breast cancer. “Consuming as little as one-quarter to one-third cup of dairy milk per day was associated with an increased risk of breast cancer of 30 percent,” lead researcher Gary E. Fraser, Ph.D., of Loma Linda University explained. Soy had the opposite effect, the study found.
“By drinking up to one cup [of dairy] per day, the associated risk went up to 50 percent, and for those drinking two to three cups per day, the risk increased further to 70 to 80 percent.” Most cheese is made from dairy, so while the study was about milk, cheese would be considered dairy food and the results would correlate to cheese.
Read More: Study: One Daily Serving of Dairy Linked to Higher Risk of Cancer
Dairy Raises Risk of Prostate Cancer
Men who consume dairy are also at elevated risk for cancer. Dr. Shireen Kassam, Ph.D., founding director of Plant-Based Health Professionals UK wants men to know that there is also an association between dairy and prostate cancer risk, according to scientific studies.
“A combined analysis of 32 observational studies found that for every 400 grams of dairy consumed daily (just over 1 1/2 cups) correlated with a 7 percent increased risk of developing prostate cancer, and this risk applied to both milk and cheese,” she says.
In another review of studies on plant-based foods and cancer risk, researchers found that the consumption of plant-based foods reduced the risk of prostate cancer.
Read More: Dairy Increases Risk of Prostate Cancer. What to Eat to Lower It
Cheese Is High in Saturated Fat
Cheese is high in saturated fat, linked to an increased risk of heart disease. In the UK, researchers have recommended that people eat no more than a matchbook size sliver a day, and even that may be too much for someone battling high blood pressure, a symptom and a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, according to heart doctors.
Saturated fat has been linked to high cholesterol, blockages that make heart attack and stroke more likely, and calcium deposits that can be fatal if blood flow to the brain, heart, or lungs is hindered. Dr. Joel Kahn, a plant-based cardiologist, says the less sat fat you eat the better.
A study in The Cochrane Review demonstrated that reducing dietary saturated fat intake lowered the risk of combined cardiovascular events by 21 percent, and the greater the reduction in saturated fat, the greater the drop in the risk of cardiovascular events.
This was true both for people who had no prior history of heart events, and those who had a history of heart disease, Dr. Kahn added. In fact, the reduction in sat fat was even more powerful for those who did have known heart disease.
Read More: The Fat Wars Are Over and Sat Fat is a Killer, Says Dr. Joel Kahn
A plant-based diet can lower your risk of heart disease since saturated fat is only found in animal fat and some tropical oils such as palm oil and coconut oil. The American Heart Association states that “decades of sound science has proven [saturated fat] can raise your “bad” cholesterol and puts you at higher risk for heart disease.”
The ADA recommends keeping daily saturated fat intake to 5 percent of your daily calories. That means if you eat 2,000 calories a day, no more than 100 of those should come from animal fat, which essentially means going plant-based.
Exactly What Happens to Your Body When You Cut Out Cheese
In Dr. Barnard’s book
It can take up to 21 days for all traces of dairy protein to leave your system, according to experts at La Leche League, which helps women who have babies that are intolerant to cow’s milk. (Human milk contains lactose but not dairy protein, so it is in a form that babies can tolerate.)
To see the full results of giving up cheese and dairy, you need to give up milk, cheese, yogurt, and all forms of cow’s milk for three full weeks.
But the positive effects of giving up cheese and dairy will start to be felt much earlier, as soon as just a few days. Still, if you want to know whether dairy is causing your joint pain or inflammation, allow it to fully leave your system and have zero dairy products for 21 ways and wait until the three weeks are up to evaluate the results.
When You Give Up Cheese:
- Your joints are no longer swollen: Inflammation causes swelling, soreness, and pain in your joints. Get rid of cheese and see if your knees, hips, ankles, and shoulders feel less stiff, or if running and doing everyday activities feels easier.
- Your skin clears up: If you have any allergic reaction to dairy, it causes inflammation, and swelling and can lead to puffiness, including in your skin cells. Your skin clears up when inflammation goes down in the body since your pores are no longer clogged.
- Your under-eye bags and puffiness disappear: Bags under your eyes are sometimes a sign that you have an allergy to something in your body, which causes the blood vessels to
- You have better breath: Your breath gets better since your gut stops producing gas from unhealthy bacteria that are fed by lactose. As your microbiome switches over to a healthier and more diverse bacteria balance, especially if you eat more plant-based foods, you will notice your breath gets better.
- You lower your risk of heart disease: Saturated fat is linked to a higher risk of heart disease. By not having all the saturated fat in cheese, you are reversing your risk factor. The chain reaction goes like this: Saturated fat elevates cholesterol and leads to calcium deposits, which lodge in place as plaque build-up and blockages in your arteries.
- Your hormones start to get into balance: PCOS, fertility, heavy periods, and hormonal symptoms are all regulated by your body’s endocrine system. Lose the added hormones in dairy and cheese and see if your symptoms clear up or relent.
- You lower your risk of cancer: You lower your risk of breast cancer, as well as other hormonal cancers like prostate and uterine cancer. Studies also show that you lower your risk of a second primary cancer occurring, so whether you have had skin cancer or another form, the hormones in dairy can promote cancer cell growth in the body.
Will you miss cheese? Does a former smoker. miss cigarettes? Yes, you will miss cheese. But less and less as the days go by and it loosens its grip on you.
Bottom Line: If you only give up one thing for your health, make it cheese.
Cheese is linked to inflammation in most people, and contains hormones such as growth hormone and traces of estrogen, known to increase the risk of cancer. It takes 21 days for all traces of dairy to leave your system but you can see the benefits when you give up dairy. Just a few changes are that your hormones get back into balance and you’ll live free of joint pain and bloating.
For the best cheese alternatives, visit The Beet’s review of vegan cheese slices and non-dairy vegan cheese shreds.