The Cheese Trap: Fighting Diabetes with a Dairy-Free Diet

The Cheese Trap: Fighting Diabetes with a Dairy-Free Diet

Have you ever felt pulled to a certain food? Maybe it’s chocolate, potato chips, a hamburger, or a bowl of ice cream. For some people, it’s cheese. After 30 years of conducting clinical research studies and prescribing the same approach—a low-fat vegan diet—to participants eager to lose extra weight, lower blood pressure, improve cholesterol, alleviate headaches and joint pain, and feel great again, I always get pushback about the same food: cheese.

Parting ways with this ultra-processed substance, which smells like the bacteria it is, seems harder than eliminating chicken, turkey, yogurt, fish, and milk, which collectively don’t have the same gravitational pull as cheddar, mozzarella, feta, and baked brie.

Part of this habitual preference is neurological. As cheese digests it may release tiny molecules, casomorphins, that can bind to dopamine receptors in our brain. This “feel good” chemical reaction looks similar to any other dopamine trigger, from alcohol and drug use to exercise or listening to music. The casomorphins in cheese may be what drives pizza, along with its hyperpalatable state, to the No. 1 spot on the Yale Food Addiction Scale. While this neurological tangle isn’t as potent as alcohol, drugs, and tobacco, it’s still present and lingers in our minds. It’s also entrenched in our society. We consume 37 pounds of cheese, per person, each year.

The dairy industry’s marketing wizards do a good job: they sell their products, keep us coming back, and maintain a strong foothold in American homes. It’s hard to compete. They even have the U.S. government hooked. In return for $140 million, Uncle Sam works with Dairy Management Inc. to promote dairy products like cheese, which aren’t helping solve disproportionate rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease in America. Compared to those who eat cheese, people who follow a dairy-free diet have a BMI that’s two points lower, on average, the equivalent of 15 pounds.

A small shift in body weight matters since one in three adults struggle with obesity. One in three, 86 million, has pre-diabetes. Nearly half of all cardiometabolic deaths, deaths related to stroke, heart attacks, and diabetes, are due to diet. Fortunately, we have solutions. From nutritional yeast to bean-based dips, people can easily swap their favorite cheese toppings for non-dairy options as they transition to a nutrient-packed, whole-food, plant-based diet. When Cindy Finch, a 47-year-old education specialist in Manhattan, moved from a vegetarian to a vegan diet she was able to cut her insulin intake in half. Since Cindy struggles with type 1 diabetes, she will always have to take insulin since her pancreas can’t produce it—but she realized she didn’t need as much. After eliminating cheese from her diet, she noticed significant changes in her A1c, a measure of blood sugar control over a 2- to 3-month period, and in how she feels. Her doctors were impressed. Cindy remains elated.

In addition to increased energy, Cindy noticed another benefit: defined muscle mass. Maintaining a healthy weight for Cindy was never a problem, but she noticed muscle tone after extra fat melted from her body. It’s no surprise she’s still smiling after running weekend 10k races. After she finishes, she now loops back through the course to deliver water to friends. She feels so good that she even put her 15-year-old dog on a vegan diet. With the new diet, she feels as though she has a brand new dog—one who is just as energetic, healthy, happy, and strong as Cindy, and who can keep up with her action-packed New York City pace.

Energy gains and insulin function are just one piece of the puzzle. Those, like Cindy, who want to make a leap to a plant-based, dairy-free diet can look forward to other benefits, including a reduced risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain forms of cancer.