When asked to describe “optimal eating,” my starting point is simple: Eat real, whole food.
I’m talking high-quality meat, fish and eggs; healthy fats and oils; loads of veggies; and moderate amounts of fruit, nuts and seeds. For some people, high-quality, full-fat dairy is okay too (as are occasional, *sensible* indulgences, such as dark chocolate).
What do I mean by “some people”? And more specific to this post…
What about cheese?
First, cheese is NOT strict paleo (which cuts dairy) but is primal. Second, I could care less what someone labels their eating pattern. I’m far more interested in what’s on their plate and whether it supports their goals and needs.
But cheese – like dairy generally – is a tricky one.
For many people, cutting the cheese (>sigh<) results in clearer skin, improved digestion, reduced aches and pains, fewer respiratory problems and less mucus. Until they do cut dairy for a while and then re-introduce it, many don’t even realize it’s contributing to a host of bodily woes.
For others, eating high-quality, organic dairy can be healthy and even healing (particularly if their diet is otherwise lacking in animal products). The high-quality, organic bit is key though, as becomes clear when we investigate why, for many people, dairy can be problematic.
For “those people” (who actually include an awful lot of us), dairy is similar to grains in that it can cause chronic inflammation in the gut. This impedes our ability to digest all foods, not just dairy.
Also like grains, dairy can cause tiny holes in our intestinal lining. Dairy proteins, undigested food, bacteria and other substances then sneak through these holes into the bloodstream. Since they shouldn’t be there, our immune system sees them as foreign invaders and attacks. This can lead to a full-blown autoimmune response or sneakier forms of inflammation, whether local or systemic.
Sensitivity and symptoms vary widely. Notably, people with celiac disease or other forms of gluten sensitivity are often cross-sensitive to dairy. This is primarily due to similarities between proteins found in dairy and grains. For those with gluten intolerance, dairy may make symptoms worse.
As if that were’t enough, the combination of sugars and proteins found in dairy also triggers an insulin spike. This makes it hard for the body to release energy stored in fat cells. We thus feel hungry and must keep eating to maintain energy levels (rather than first access nutrients in storage). Meanwhile, under-utilized fat stores grow.
What’s more, dairy (like grains and processed foods) contributes to a more acidic state in the body. Cheese, in particular, is a big one for this. While that probably isn’t reason enough to avoid cheese completely, it’s worth taking into account. A highly acidic diet overall may play a role in various diseases, including asthma, high blood pressure and cancer. It can also contribute to bone de-mineralization, osteopenia and osteoporosis.
Yet another consideration is the health, diet and living conditions of the animals your cheese comes from – all have a major impact on how dairy affects the body. Factory-farmed commercial cows are often sickly, subjected to inhumane treatment, exposed to pesticides and heavy metals, and given antibiotics, synthetic hormones and unnatural feed (e.g., animal meat, bones and blood). Because antibiotics, hormones and environmental toxins are fat soluble, they find their way into the cheese and, from there, your body.
For those who choose to eat cheese, awareness of these issues is huge when deciding among brands. Best to go with organic and sourced from grass-fed, pasture-raised animals. This ensures your cheese comes from animals treated humanely, raised on natural diets, and free of toxins.
You’ll also want to look for super-short ingredient lists and choose full-fat (or, at least, avoid low-fat). As with everything, you’re aiming for real, whole, minimally processed food.
That’s the sort of food that will give your body what it needs while satiating hunger and promoting healthy digestion.
So complicated! What’s this mean for me?
Here’s the thing, individuals differ vastly – both in their nutritional needs and in their reactions to particular foods. In Chinese Medicine, we take this as fundamental when crafting an eating plan.
Where to start? NOT with pricey “allergy” tests. For people with gut sensitivities, such tests often yield false positives and unreliable results. More generally, conventional lab tests are often unhelpful or incomplete measures of which foods are healthy options for you, as an individual.
The “gold standard” of individualized food testing remains self-experimentation in the form of a trial elimination diet.
In other words, cut cheese (and other dairy) for a few weeks…and see what happens. Then, slowly, mindfully add it back in…and see what happens. More bloating and puff? More stuffiness and mucus? More breakouts and joint pain? None of the above? These are your first clues.
From there, you’ll want to consider the type of cheese – and quantity.
Many people (self included) do best with hard cheese from sheep or goats. And to get the health benefits of a fermented product, go raw.
Many people also do fine with a small square. A whole hunk? Not so much. Just explore – with an abundance of curiosity – and see how you do with cheese on and off your plate.
As with most food choices, it also comes down to tradeoffs.
Personally, I love cheese (especially when from a local charcuterie, wrapped in pink paper, and accompanied by a love note).
AND I can’t devour an entire hunk and expect to feel stellar. A bite or three offers nourishment and pleasure: a simple, perfect dessert. But leaves me slightly stuffy: my tradeoff and choice.
More than a little? Personally, it’s not worth the added congestion and puff.
Do you eat cheese? What sorts? Ever eliminate it for a spell? Please share, if you’d like!
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