Friday, January 20, 2012

In defense of cheese

I love cheese. In fact, I often say that for me, a life without cheese is a life not worth living. So you can understand my horror at seeing this article talking about a nonprofit organization that is launching a smear campaign against the dairy product of the gods. Recently, they've put up billboards in Albany, NY like this one:

My question cheese the real culprit? Or is it the quantity of cheese that people are eating? In the article, a registered dietitian makes the claim that "cheese poses a bigger dietary problem than other foods because people have a hard time gauging portion size." So it's cheese's fault?! I don't think there's anything inheritantly different about cheese that makes people eat more of it (besides the fact that it's AWESOME!). I think it has more to do with the fact that people view cheese as a "bad" food, and when we are given access to foods that we view as forbidden, we tend to go overboard and eat too much of it because we're not sure when we'll have access to it again.

For an intuitive eater, this is no longer an issue. Once you have truly given yourself permission to eat any food, and reject "good" and "bad" labels, then there is no reason to binge on any "bad" foods because you can have them any time you want them (and you wouldn't think of them as "bad" anymore either). Furthermore, when you're eating that food (regardless of what it is), you should have no problem gauging portion size because an appropriate portion is whenever your body tells you to stop. If you're in tune with your hunger and satiety signals, and eat slowly and with focus, you'll stop eating cheese (or any other food) when you're satisfied.

This is not to say that intuitive eaters ignore nutrition altogether. Instead, we use our nutrition knowledge to make healthy food choices that do not diminish the eating experience. Eating should be pleasurable, and if taking the cheese (or bacon, or butter, or any other rich food item) off of a dish would make it significantly less pleasurable, then you're better off leaving it on, rather than take it off and feel deprived (which triggers all kinds of negative feelings and behaviors!).

There's a great example from the Intuitive Eating book, in which one of the authors is at a restaurant and orders an egg white omelet with cheese. The waiter snickers a little at her request, and she explains that for her (and I feel the same way), having an omelet without cheese would take away from the omelet-eating experience-- she would miss it. The egg yolks, however, she wouldn't miss, so knowing that the yolks are higher in fat and calories, she made the choice to take those out.

I do realize that there are people who genuinely don't know what foods are more nutritious and which ones are high in fat and calories and low in nutrients, so there is some education that needs to be done before they are able to make these choices. But, first of all, cheese does offer some nutrients (calcium, protein, etc), so I don't believe that eliminating its consumption is even appropriate, especially compared to some other commonly consumed foods and beverages (soft drinks, chips, etc) that offer little to no nutrient value whatsoever. Secondly, I do not think that the approach of this group helps with the cause of preventing obesity. Instead, it feeds into the diet mentality of foods being "good" and "bad", which only creates more problematic behaviors in the long run.

So back off, Cheese Police! There are plenty of people who use cheese responsibly, and live happier lives for it. I'd say the real issue is not the consumption of cheese, but the fact that we live in a diet-obessed culture where people are so out of touch with their hunger and satiety signals that they eat beyond the level of satisfaction and, thanks to campaigns like this, they see cheese as a forbidden food, which only exaggerates this behavior even more. Of course, my argument is not as easily made into a billboard.

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