Can you break your cheese habit? A new book, called The Cheese Trap, makes the case for skipping dairy products altogether.
Cheese is "both fattening and addictive," said author Dr. Neal Barnard, founder of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.
Cheese is addictive, Barnard said, because the dairy proteins inside can act as mild opiates. Fragments of cheese protein, called casomorphins, attach to the same brain receptors as heroin and other narcotics. As a result, each bite of cheese produces a tiny hit of dopamine.
He calls it "dairy crack."
Cheddar cheese, Barnard said, has the most concentrated amount of cheese protein in the grocery store and it can pack more calories than Coca-Cola and more salt than potato chips.
At 149 calories, one cup of milk delivers more energy than a can of sugary soda. One cup of melted cheddar? You're looking at 986 calories.
Think a typical 2-ounce snack of potato chips ranks high in salt at 350 milligrams? Two ounces of Velveeta knocks potato chips aside as a sodium villain, containing more than 800 milligrams of sodium, said Barnard, a noted vegan and animal rights activist.
"Cheese," Barnard said "is not just tasty. It actually contains concentrated opiates, along with salt and grease, that tend to keep us hooked."
Cheese consumption has risen steadily since the early 1970s, a trend that tracks alongside the rise in obesity.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Americans overall consumed 11 pounds of cheese per capita in 1970, a figure which has more than tripled to 35 pounds per person in 2015. Our cheese of choice? Mozzarella, topping out at 11 pounds per person, followed closely by cheddar at 10 pounds per person last year.
If you've been hearing more about how dairy products can harm your health, The Cheese Trap rounds up a growing chorus of anti-dairy perspectives, evidence and experiences.
And if you just want to drop some pounds, Barnard argues that skipping meat, cheese and dairy might be a way to accomplish that goal.
Research conducted by PCRM shows that animal fats tend to slow the metabolism down, which could mean increased dairy consumption is linked to weight gain trends across the nation.
Vegetarians who avoid dairy products weighed 15 pounds less, on average, than vegetarians who kept their ice cream and cheese consumption going. Amid a rising obesity epidemic, that's enough evidence, he said, to avoid the "chubby cheddar."
"We have done similar studies with hundreds of men and women and have found powerful weight loss in every study," Barnard wrote.
At the helm of PCRM — a nonprofit that recently opened a clinical practice in Washington, D.C., that relies on plant-based medicine as a first step to combat chronic disease — Barnard has also authored texts like the 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart, Power Foods For The Brain, and Dr. Neal Barnard's Program for Reversing Diabetes.
The Cheese Trap is a contribution to the growing conversation and evidence that links food and health. As part of that evolution, Barnard details how his staff has taken federal nutrition experts to task. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans are recommendations compiled every five years, conclusions based on expert testimony and study that become blueprints for the school lunch program, dietitians and ordinary Americans who try to pay attention to what they eat.
Barnard details in the book how PCRM staff have lobbied in court to limit contributions to federal nutrition experts by industry groups like the National Dairy Promotion and Research Board, Nestle and Dannon. PCRM also battled the government to crack down on false claims in advertising by the dairy industry.
For readers intrigued by Barnard's anti-dairy pitch, more than 65 recipes come inside The Cheese Trap. For identifying food problems linked to migraines, chronic pain, inflammation and other maladies the author talks about, an appendix discusses the concept of an elimination diet.
Follow Jere Downs on Twitter: @jeredowns