I have bad news and good news.
The bad news is scientists have finally proven that cheese is addictive. My favorite food can now be labeled a drug. The good news is I now have a legitimate excuse for why I consume such copious amounts of cheese.
According to a study by the University of Michigan, not all foods are created equal when it comes to food addiction. A sample of 500 university students completed the Yale Food Addiction Scale which measures the rate of food addiction in people’s lives and also studies the types of foods they crave. The number one most addictive food turned out to be pizza. I mean, who isn’t addicted to that cheesy, tomatoey, carb-filled goodness?
But it turns out, it’s not simply just taste that causes people to keep their favorite pizza joint on speed dial. Apparently, there is a protein in milk products called ‘casein’. Dr. Neal Barnard explains that casein “breaks apart digestion to release a whole host of opiates called casomorphins.” Casomorphins play with dopamine receptors and trigger the reward reflex in our brains.
Cheese is chocked full of these proteins that trigger our brains into the reward/craving cycle. Some researchers go as far as to call cheese “dairy crack.”
Another finding of the study on food addiction, was the presence of fat in food and its influence. Not shockingly, people seem less inclined to be addicted to lower fat foods. Unprocessed foods like brown rice or fresh fruits and vegetables do not trigger the same eating patterns in people that highly processed foods do. The study concludes that highly processed foods may share characteristics with drugs of abuse (e.g. high doses and rapid rate of absorption) and appear to be associated with “food addiction.”
Food addiction is associated with highly emotional behavior, but the findings of this study reveal that emotions aren’t the only force prompting this sort of behavior. These highly processed, rich in fat foods, trigger chemical reactions in our brains that rewire our neurotransmitters to desire more and more of that food. Case in point: I have found myself standing in the bleak light of the open refrigerator, mindlessly shoving cheddar cheese into my mouth for no particular reason.
“I must be in a darker place than I realized,” I would think as I came out of my cheese stupor. Now I know my brain is simply chasing that dopamine high that tiny cheese cubes at graduation parties have provided for years and years.
Understanding the chemical processes involved in triggering food addiction can help break the stereotype that people who overeat are simply undisciplined. Claiming that people who struggle with food addiction are lazy, or indulgent, or lack self-control is the same as accusing an alcoholic who struggles not to get drunk in a bar of being undisciplined. Our culture is saturated in cheap highly processed food. Take a look at what the average American school lunch consists of, and the rates of childhood obesity in this country will make more sense.
In light of these scientific findings, discussions about food addiction, availability of unprocessed food and food production regulations are needed.
I now know why I find myself shoveling pizza into my mouth like there’s no tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I should just blame it on brain chemistry and continue dialing Papa Johns. Cheese addiction may be rampant, but it’s not a fate we must be resigned to!
Knowledge is the birthplace of power, so let’s start taking our health back. I’m not advocating for the eradication of cheese. I’m not sure that’s a world I want to live in. But understanding what is happening in your brain might help you put that fourth piece of pizza down and eat a salad.
Featured photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via flickr.com