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The Cheese Trap

Cheese. It’s evil.

At least, that’s the premise of this surprisingly readable book.

And the very fact that it’s readable makes me have second thoughts about it’s merit as nutritional insight. Generally speaking, I prefer my science to be weighty, heavily footnoted, carefully worded, and to not have a potential conflict of interest lurking in the background.

Which is not to say that there is any direct evidence that Dr. Barnard is hawking products directly, but his enthusiastic endorsements of alternatives to Devil Cheese do at least raise, for this reader, a small red flag.

In his book Dr. Barnard claims that cheese is a high fat, low food value, high calorie drug that we add to our diets at our peril.

But, back to the book itself: its premise is simple –we are not made to handle dairy products, whether the milk and milk products come from humans (beyond a certain age), cows, goats, or buffalo. Milk products create digestive issues for many people, and are far to high a dose of everything, from lactose to fat to calcium, for the human body to deal with.

Worst of all is cheese, since it is, in essence, a concentrated form of dairy –and often lacks the warning signals that plain milk or ice cream will provide, such as gas and diarrhea (lactose intolerance).

Worse, cheese provides a sort of nutritional high that, for many, is actually addictive. The culprit is something called “casomorphin,” and like many compounds that sound or are spelled similarly, casomorphin acts on the brain like an opiate, offering a sense of well-being at the cost of becoming addicted.

And that’s what Dr. Barnard claims: cheese is a high fat, low food value, high calorie drug that we add to our diets at our peril.

He says that everything from obesity to allergies to low sperm count can be laid at the door of the flavorful treat –and that even a little is too much.

One way to know that cheese is addictive, he writes, is to try to eliminate it from your diet. Of course, the same could be said about water, chocolate, bread, or the oddball food favorites many of us fall victim to, from a crunchy carrot to a harmless daily spoonful of peanut butter. However, the many ways in which we consume cheese —from a bite for a snack to a grilled cheese sandwich or a cheesy pizza— is testament to the versatility and satisfying flavor and filling quality of the food. So our ability to leave it alone will also likely have something to do with the many ways it can be used to prepare a meal as well as the many varieties it comes in: hard cheeses and soft, melted or chilled, sweet or tangy. It’s one of those go-with-everything choices as well: it’s useful as a dessert, an hors d’oeuvre, to accompany wine or in a stringy snack for little ones.

Milk products create digestive issues for many people, and are far to high a dose of everything, from lactose to fat to calcium, for the human body to deal with.

Now, anyone who’s been around for more than a decade or two will have lived through a “never eat this” or “always eat that” food fad for dieters and the health conscious. The old food pyramid was challenged with the Atkins diet, and people who successfully lost weight eating huge portions of meat and other proteins (and eliminating carbohydrates from their diets completely) were then told that the only way to eat was from the carb aisle. Carb-loading was the watchword of those who hit the gym regularly. No, no, no … too much gluten! Gluten is the work of demons in the ground! Go out for dinner with friends and you’ll all be searching the menu for low or no-gluten alternatives. Then Paleo. Then organics: do not touch anything that’s processed. It will have hormones, additives, GMOs and other hidden beasties waiting to kill you from within.

You get the picture.

For many of us, the ultimate answer was —and probably is— to try to find foods that are as close to “nature” as possible, and eat moderately from a wide variety of them.

For Barnard, it’s to hit the nuts and soy heavily. That Tofurky for Thanksgiving – great idea! And cheese can be made with nuts. That’s right, nuts. If you can make milk from almonds, you can make cheese from them, too. He includes some recipes from people who have experimented with making pizza and lasagne using hickory nuts to create the cheese. Of course, I kept wondering, “What about the people who are allergic to tree nuts, and what about the phyto-estrogen link with soy?”

The book makes every effort to make a no-cheese (or dairy, or meat) diet sound feasible and even appealing, and I have to acknowledge some of the problems that give even more weight (yeah, puns intended) to his argument: rampant obesity; intolerable cruelty on factory farms; unbalanced diets; an explosion of allergies and auto-immune problems; and, despite more and better healthcare, a general decline in our standards of fitness and good health.

While I’d say “read the book,” as some of it will be a cautionary tale of eating less, better and a more balanced diet, I’d also say, read it with a grain of sanity. Not one of the fad diet recommendations has stood the test of time, save perhaps the “eat small portions of many, seasonal foods, grown close to home and prepared to save the nutritional value” recommendation. And do pay attention to what you crave, how often you eat it, and how you feel after consuming it. Your body generally does try to make itself heard!

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.