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Doctor's Book Presents The Case Against 'Dairy Crack'

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The average American eats more than 33 pounds of cheese a year.

This is according to Neal Barnard, physician and president of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. And that's a problem, he says, because it's helping to make us overweight and sick.

Barnard's new book, The Cheese Trap: How Breaking a Surprising Addiction Will Help You Lose Weight, Gain Energy, and Get Healthy, is set to hit shelves Tuesday. In it, Barnard writes about cheese in strong terms:

I'd never before thought in terms of dairy products being addictive (with the personal exception of milk chocolate, I admit). Barnard explains that dairy protein — specifically a protein called casein — has opiate molecules built in. When babies nurse, he notes, they're getting dosed with a mild drug: "Milk contains opiates that reward the baby for nursing."

It's no different with the cow's milk — or other mammalian milk — from which cheese is made. In fact, Barnard says, the process of cheese-making concentrates the casein:

The U.S. produces more cheese than any other country in the world, according to Barnard.

The big issue, he says, is that cheese lovers aren't just addicted to a delicious food, they're addicted to one that may seriously contribute to health problems. He cites studies in the book that tie eating cheese to weight gain and risks of numerous diseases.

Barnard suggests that giving up cheese is associated, for example, with relief of asthma symptoms. In an email, Barnard summarized the case for this association this way:

In the book, Barnard notes that vitamin D may play an important role in protecting us against some types of cancers. Citing prostate-cancer data, he suggests that because dairy products are high in calcium and calcium intake can slow down activation of vitamin D, cancer risks may increase with cheese-eating.

He also tells the story of Ruth Heidrich, who opted for a vegan diet and exercise instead of chemotherapy and radiation to fight breast cancer that had spread to her bones, liver and one lung. It is fabulous that this approach succeeded for Heidrich in quite remarkable fashion, but cancer affects each person differently — and I do worry that anecdotes like this one may influence some cancer patients to turn away from treatments they need. (Yes, I know chemotherapy and radiation can be highly toxic. I've been there. But they can also save lives.)

The National Dairy Council does not endorse Barnard's descriptions of cheese. On Tuesday, Greg Miller, the council's chief science officer, responded to my request for comment about some of Barnard's claims by offering a perspective firmly centered on cheese-eating as part of a healthy diet. Among the points Miller made were these:

And as far as that "dairy crack" crack of Barnard's?

"The idea that any food, including cheese, can be addictive in the same way as any drug is misleading and will only add to consumer confusion about healthy eating," Miller said.

Additionally, Miller points to research from Harvard School of Public Health that shows no association between cheese and long-term weight gain.

For his part, Barnard includes a chapter in The Cheese Trap called "The Industry Behind the Addiction" that describes "the relentless lobbying of the powerful dairy industry" to promote cheese despite its risks.

Barnard's central message about the costs of cheese-eating includes something I find to be quite important: costs to other animals, like dairy cows. He summed up those costs in his email:

What about a person who is convinced by Barnard's human-health-and-animal-welfare argument to the extent that she decides to reduce her cheese intake, rather than giving up cheese altogether?

"People are free to make their own choices, of course," Barnard wrote. He continued:

The Cheese Trap concludes with more than 60 pages of recipes, ranging from oats-and-cashew-based "cheesecake" to whole-grain pizza. No surprise: Cheese is not included among the ingredients.

Barbara J. King is an anthropology professor emerita at the College of William and Mary. She often writes about the cognition, emotion and welfare of animals, and about biological anthropology, human evolution and gender issues. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve, and her forthcoming book, Personalities on the Plate: The Lives and Minds of Animals We Eat, will be published in March. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.