Whether it’s bubbling hot on pizza, ooey gooey on top of a nice juicy burger and swimming in creamy dreamy heaven with macaroni, humans love cheese. And nothing causes as much uproar as when folks find out cheese isn’t part of a Paleo diet.
“No sugar? Okay, I know that’s not good for me anyway.”
“No wheat? Bread will be kind of tough to give up, but I’ll find a way.”
“No cheese? Oh, hellllllllllll no! What?! I looooooooove cheese.” Complete with neck snap and finger wave.
If you’re nodding at the screen right now, you’re not alone. Why? Cheese is addictive. I don’t mean addictive in the colloquial sense like how you think you can’t live without CrossFit or how you can’t stop watching old Sex and the City reruns. No, this is something different. Ask anyone who eats Paleo which food they miss the most…a majority will say cheese. I polled my Facebook fans with the same question several months back and cheese was the top reply, hands down. Not booze. Not sugar. Not bread. Cheese.
Cheese – and the compounds in it – alters brain chemistry because it contains compounds called casomorphins (that’s an awful lot of C’s). Said another way, cheese casomorphins cause an opioid, drug-like effect on your brain. Let’s investigate.
When milk is made to curdle, the liquid component (whey) is separated from the solid component (curds). Those curds are, in large part, composed of proteins like casein which are then pressed into the form we know as cheese. In other words, cheese is concentrated casein. That’ll play into things later.
milk = whey + curds
curds = proteins
The casein proteins make up about 80% of the protein fraction in cow’s milk and can take four different forms. When casein reaches the small intestine, it’s broken into smaller fragments (known as peptides) called beta-casomorphins. As the name suggests, beta-casomorphin has a morphine-like, opioid effect on the brain once it goes into the bloodstream and crosses the blood-brain barrier. And because cheese is so much more concentrated in proteins than milk, it suggests why giving up milk is like, “Meh, okay,” while giving up cheese is fraught with protest. Let’s be clear…cheese isn’t a drug but the effects it has on the brain are pretty compelling coupled with how much humans seem to adore it. Incidentally, casomorphins also causes histamine release, explaining why some people have skin (or other) reactions to eating cheese or dairy in general.
Why are there morphine-like compounds in milk? The prevailing theory is that it functions to forge the bond between mother and offspring – yes, even humans – during nursing though it’s typically found in highest concentration in colostrum (new milk) versus mature milk.
- Cheese is a concentrated source of casein.
- Casein breaks down into casomorphins in the gut.
- Casomorphins have opioid and histamine responses in the body.
- This opioid effect seems to explain why people cite cheese as one of those foods they just can’t give up when going Paleo.
What does this all mean? As always, if you’re new to Paleo, be sure to do a strict 30 days and systematically reintroduce dairy, grains and legumes (if you want to). Unless you remove these potentially problematic foods and push the reset button, you’re unlikely to have a clear answer about whether they affect you negatively or not. A program like Whole30 or what’s outlined in “The Paleo Solution” can get you on track.
I’m not here to tell you what’s right or wrong for your body. Trust me, I’m not hating on cheese because I used to love it (but I don’t miss what it does to me) so no hate mail, please. If cheese doesn’t bother your system, it’s up to you whether or not you include it in your Paleo. Now you know why it’s so enticing, the potential downsides, and why cheese isn’t part of the original Paleo diet…it’s not because people want to spoil all your ooey-gooey cheesy fun. Promise.
Did you find it hard to give up eating cheese when you started Paleo? Do you still eat it?
British Journal of Nutrition (2000), 84, Suppl. 1, S27-S31.