Cheese takes me back to childhood holidays spent in rural France, picnicking with crusty baguettes topped with oozing, overly ripe camembert. And my grandad’s cheeseboard is the stuff of legend (it’s a running joke in my family that I was essentially weaned on stilton).
It’s true that during my first thirty years, I was truly a cheese connoisseur (some might say fanatic). The bluer, smellier, and riper – the better. I’d always opt for a cheese board over the dessert menu, any day of the week.
Why am I telling you all this? Because I want you to understand just how deep my love of cheese runs. I feel like I am perfectly placed to talk about how to overcome cheese addiction, because I was the last person on earth you’d ever have expected to willingly give it up.
When I took the vegan plunge, the thought of saying goodbye to cheese forever was the main stumbling block for me. What kind of a sad half-life was I accepting? So if you’re struggling to break up with brie and Violife just isn’t cutting it, then you’ve come to the right place.
Because if I can do it, then you know what that means… You absolutely can, too.
Why Is Cheese So Addictive?
There’s no denying the fact that we Brits are some serious cheese lovers. Statistically, consumption has increased in the UK year on year since 2014. And, in 2021, we were averaging a record 150 grams per person, per week!
If we look a little closer at cheese itself, it is made up of two types of protein – casein and whey. A lot of the liquid whey is strained out during the production process, meaning that casein is the main protein.
Why does this matter? Well, if you’re finding it harder than you bargained for giving up cheese, then that’s because it turns out that casein makes it genuinely addictive!
Dr T. Colin Campbell, author of The China Study, explains that when casein is digested, it releases opioid compounds called casomorpines into the bloodstream. These then attach themselves to dopamine receptors in the brain, the neurotransmitters which are responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward. So, in essence, cheese behaves in much the same way that heroin or morphine might.
In his fascinating book The Cheese Trap, Dr Neil Barnard goes on to explain this phenomenon:
Imagine if a calf did not want to nurse. Or if a human baby was not interested in nursing. They would not do very well. So, along with protein, fat, sugar, and a sprinkling of hormones, milk contains opiates that reward the baby for nursing.
As cheese is the most concentrated form of dairy – multiplying the protein content by a whopping sevenfold – it’s no surprise that we are all mild-mannered cheese junkies in disguise (do whatever you like, but don’t even think about taking away my camembert).
The Problem With Saying “I Couldn’t Live Without Cheese”
I’ve overcome many self-limiting beliefs in my time, but one of the most persistent was that niggling thought that I wouldn’t be able to live without cheese. It’s also one of the phrases I hear most frequently when talking to people about veganism (more so than protests about giving up meat or fish).
I’m going to be dishing up a bit of tough love here, but honestly? This is truly a first-world problem. When there is an abundance of choice at the supermarket – with so many alternatives and plant-based snacking options available – of course we can choose to intentionally live without cheese.
Put it this way. If we can’t control ourselves around the food we eat, then how on earth do we expect ourselves to be intentional in any other area of our lives, whether it’s our time, money or relationships? How bad does a situation need to be before we take meaningful personal action? Once you’ve educated yourself on the horrors of the dairy industry, you’re really just making excuses.
Giving up cheese is an excellent education in self-discipline and delayed gratification. And, in my own experience, developing this muscle sets you on the path to a life well-lived.
7 Tips to Stop Cheese Cravings in Their Tracks
With all this said, I do understand that things are often a lot more difficult in practice than in theory! So here are some tips that have helped me to overcome cheese cravings for the past two years since going vegan.
#1 Don’t have cheese in the fridge
A lot of advice out there will tell you to cut down on cheese slowly. But in my view, this is only prolonging the inevitable. When you do get that cheesy hit, you’ll be all the more hooked because you’ve been so deprived of it. This only makes it harder to get off cheese for good.
What worked for me personally? Clearing out the fridge and going cold turkey.
If it sounds obvious, that’s because it is. If you don’t have cheese in the fridge, you can’t be tempted to eat it. You’ve got to teach yourself you can live without cheese, and the best way to do that is to set yourself up for success.
Of course, this works if you’re lucky enough to live on your own. But what about other household members who may still want cheese in the fridge? While this undoubtedly makes it harder, try to separate your food as much as possible onto different shelves so that you can differentiate what is yours and theirs. You’ve got this!
#2 Know your why
Going vegan is still sadly a counter-cultural choice. When you grow up in a world that normalises dairy and teaches you that it is an essential source of calcium for strong bones, it’s no surprise that you experience mental resistance when it comes to giving up cheese.
So it’s really important to educate yourself as a new vegan.
Dairy is one of the most misunderstood animal-derived products. As a by-product that technically doesn’t require an animal to die, there’s a pervasive myth that there’s nothing wrong with milk or cheese.
I’ve written all about the inherent cruelty of the dairy industry (and there are plenty of documentaries you can watch), but suffice it to say that it causes untold suffering for dairy cows and their calves, and always ends in premature slaughter. Now that my eyes have been opened, I could never eat cheese in the same guilt-free way ever again.
Cheese is also loaded with saturated fat, a major contributor to heart disease. Too much animal protein (i.e. casein) has even been linked to the growth of certain types of cancers. This isn’t to mention the inflammation, allergies, skin conditions and hormonal imbalances caused by dairy.
In short, when you educate yourself, you start to question received wisdom. And as soon as you make the personal and intentional choice to leave dairy behind, your whole outlook changes. It becomes something you can feel good about rather than something you’re depriving yourself of.
#3 Manage your expectations of vegan cheese
If you’re a cheese aficionado, then I must warn you that plant-based alternatives are not cheese and often have a suspicious aftertaste and/or texture (despite looking very convincing at first glance). Although vegan cheese has admittedly come a long way, it’s not a like-for-like replacement. At least, not yet. It’s also often more expensive, which is hard to swallow when you’re already compromising on taste.
You’ll want to go easy on the vegan cheese, because store-bought ones can be high in sodium, oil and preservatives (remember, just because something is vegan doesn’t automatically make it healthier!).
To get you started with supermarket plant-based options, I’d advise starting with a soft cheese alternative like Nush. I also find that Cathedral City makes a decent grated cheese, and a block of Applewood has a pleasant smokey flavour.
#4 Make nutritional yeast a new pantry staple
Nutritional yeast – aka ‘nooch’ in the vegan community – is something I’d never heard of before going vegan! But it very quickly became a mainstay in my long-life pantry essentials.
Before you panic, this yeast is strictly deactivated. And, while the bright yellow flakes can be a little off-putting at first, I guarantee it won’t be long until you’re hooked on the cheesy, umami flavour. It’s great for sprinkling over pasta dishes as a parmesan alternative, or you can whisk it into creamy sauces. An added bonus is that it’s generally fortified with B12 and other essential nutrients that you may be lacking as a vegan.
It can be a little tricky to find in supermarkets in my experience (even major ones), but it’s available from most health food stores. I get mine from Holland & Barrett.
#4 Overcome cheese cravings with these foods
As a vegan with a savoury tooth, there are some foods that help to satisfy my cheese cravings more than others. These usually have a salty taste or creamy texture. While the below list in no way pretends to be cheese, you could try having these foods on hand to help abate your cravings:
- Olives – especially the salty kalamata variety
- Hummus – a creamy, spreadable alternative to soft cheese
- Avocado – mash into guacamole for some healthy fats
- Peanut butter – another spreadable alternative
- Tahini – a thick and creamy paste made from ground sesame seeds
- Roasted or salted nuts – a moreish alternative to snacking on cheese
- Vegan pesto – the perfect alternative if you’re fed up with tomato-based sauces
- Tinned coconut milk – add to sauces to make them thicker and creamier
#5 Have a quick & easy cheesy sauce up your sleeve
One of the things I found when I first gave up cheese is that every plant-based creamy sauce recipe requires you to blend cashews. This usually involves lots of processes and even more washing up. Frankly, this isn’t my idea of a quick weeknight meal when I just want my comfort food fix on the table, pronto.
Fortunately, I found this amazing little recipe. If you don’t want to whip out the blender every time you crave a cheese sauce, then give it a try. You can prep it in just a few minutes!
#6 Try some artisan nut cheeses
After initially trying vegan cheese, I was put off for a long time. And when I did periodically get excited about a new plant-based alternative, every taste test was a crushing disappointment.
This is because I was expecting vegan cheese to mimic real cheese.
If you can accept plant-based cheeses for what they are, then there are some lovely artisan nut-based cheeses out there. For something a little more special than your supermarket basics, why not indulge in La Fauxmargerie – the self-proclaimed world’s first plant-based cheesemonger?
Traditional celebrations like Christmas can be tricky when there is a ginormous cheeseboard involved. So it’s great to be able to buy a vegan hamper – this goes a long way to keeping a family tradition alive, as well as not missing out!
#7 Learn to embrace cheese-free cooking
Finally, I know this is a radical thought, but hear me out on this one.
Admittedly, I used to be the worst for sprinkling cheddar on… well, basically anything. Chilli? Check. Pasta? Check. Salad? Check.
The thing is, using cheese in this way becomes a bit mindless.
What’s exciting about going plant-based is that it forces you to get more creative in the kitchen and step out of your comfort zone. I used to keep some mixed herbs on hand before going vegan, but my spice drawer and fresh herbs are now at the heart of my kitchen! As a vegan, you can’t help but learn to embrace new flavours and cuisines, trying out different sauces and dressings to spice things up.
Whether it’s Asian-inspired stir-fries or Mexican bean chillis, you’ll be surprised how much flavour you can pack into your food when cheese isn’t clouding your judgement (sorry cheese, this really does feel like a breakup).
How to Overcome Cheese Addiction as a New Vegan: Don’t Give Up!
Nothing that’s worthwhile is ever easy. Remember that.
I know it might not feel like it, but you can and will live without cheese – I promise! And if you’re finding it more difficult than you bargained for, don’t beat yourself up. Cheese was honestly harder for me to give up than meat, fish, milk and eggs put together, so don’t underestimate it!
If you’re new to veganism, then check out my complete beginner’s guide over here. And for more tips on going dairy-free for good, I’ve got you covered. Don’t forget to let me know your top tips and personal challenges – and keep fighting the good fight! 💪