I’ve been running a survey for the past few months, asking my blog readers about their biggest struggles with veganism. I’ve gotten hundreds of answers, including dining out, unsupportive family members, and more.
But do you want to know the most common answer, out of everything? It’s giving up cheese. Yep. This one food causes more trouble than any other. And there’s actually a crazy scientific explanation for why…
Why Is Cheese So Addictive?
I was recently chatting with a few readers about how to quit cheese. And I remembered some research I heard about a few years ago.
So I looked into it, and I was actually shocked by what I found… This research actually shows that cheese is chemically addictive. No kidding. The Los Angeles Times actually ran an article with the following title:
Now, what on Earth could make cheese “as addictive as drugs”? Well, in truth, it’s probably a mix of factors.
Any high-calorie food has the potential to give us strong urges. This is because in our evolution, calories were scarce. We developed a strong tendency to desire dense sources of calories and nutrition.
Dr. Doug Lisle calls this “The Pleasure Trap,” and it explains our addiction to fast-food, sugar, and more… But there’s something extra happening with cheese.
There’s a specific molecule that is said to make cheese extra addictive. It’s called “casomorphin.” And it’s a type of natural opiate found in cheese… Yes, opiate!
Dr. Neal Barnard, President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), actually wrote a whole book about this, called The Cheese Trap.
The theory is that these addictive compounds, found in the milk protein casein, help to ensure that baby cows keep coming back for their mother’s milk. But now it has you coming back… even when you want to quit!
So, if you’re struggling to quit cheese, I want you to know: It’s not because you’re weak. And as my survey showed, you’re not alone, either! Cheese is very hard for many people to give up.
What Is the Meaning of Cheese Cravings?
I want to cover something as a quick side note here.
Some people think their food cravings mean something… They crave cheese, and they wonder what nutrient they’re missing, for example. But is there any truth to that?
Personally, I wouldn’t bet on it. Sure, it’s always possible that your body is craving a specific nutrient in cheese. But it’s much more likely that you’re just craving the calories, fat, salt, and addictive casomorphins.
Think about it like this: When people crave cigarettes, does it mean their body actually needs a nutrient found in cigarettes?
Why Quit Cheese
When you hear cheese is addictive, your response might be to be discouraged from trying to quit—like the odds are stacked against you. But let me emphasize: It is worth the effort.
Cheese is also just a very high-calorie, highly fattening food.
Like all dairy products, cheese causes digestive issues for many people. You may not even be able to tell how bad it’s making you feel until you quit. Many people find they have better skin, more energy, and just feel better after they quit dairy.
And that’s not even getting into the ethical reasons to quit dairy… like how cows are treated on farms.
So what can you do to quit?
14 Tips to Overcome Cheese Addiction
I wanted to share everything I could think of that would help you quit cheese… and I came up with 14 separate tips.
My personal favorite is probably tip #11… But some of you will find that advice too harsh, and you may just prefer some of the specific foods I recommend in tips 5 through 10.
In any case, just save the tips that resonate with you. Ignore the ones that don’t fit your goals or personality. Let’s dive in!
1. Cultivate and Remember Your “Why”
For me personally, I went vegan for the animals. And that provided me a very strong “why.” I felt that it was morally wrong to eat cheese. So that’s a bit of a stronger reason than just “Yeahhh, I probably should quit.”
But whatever reason you have for quitting cheese, really focus on it. Cultivate it, remind yourself of it, and dig deeper into it.
If you’re quitting cheese for health reasons, then get a book like Dr. Neal Barnard’s The Cheese Trap. Read it or listen to the audiobook every day.
If you’re doing it for the animals or the environmental impact, then maybe watching more vegan documentaries about those issues will help keep motivation high.
In the long run, you don’t want to rely on feelings of motivation to stay cheese-free. You want to build new habits that make cheese-free living effortless. But in the beginning, motivation is key.
Here’s one more tip about motivation: Don’t just focus on logical reasons to quit cheese. Personally identify your most emotional “why.” Be very honest about the pain or disgust you feel associated with it.
If you’re doing this for multiple health and ethical reasons but it’s honestly your weight or your acne that hurts the most, then be honest with yourself about that. Tap into your real, most emotional why, and make that your source of motivation.
2. Set Your Environment Up for Success
Even with a good source of motivation, relying on your will-power to achieve goals is just not smart. Whenever you can just remove temptation and remove the possibility of unwanted action, that is far more effective.
So what does this mean for quitting cheese? Well… get all the cheese out of your house (if possible)! Ideally, get your roommates or family to cooperate and not bring any around you, either.
There are potentially deeper levels to environmental optimization, though:
- You could have a reminder that pops up daily on your computer or phone that reminds you about your goal and your “why.”
- You can stock your kitchen with many cheese replacement foods (see below for ideas), so they’re always on hand.
- You could do meal prep each weekend, so you have easy, quick vegan meals ready all week without needing much prep.
- You can make a list of vegan-friendly restaurants in your area, and even pre-decide what dishes you want to try—so you’ve got those options ready at a moment’s notice, too.
Be creative and do what you can. Sometimes we don’t have control over our environment, but there may be half-measures and creative workarounds that can still make it easier for you to stick to your goal.
For more ideas about environment optimization and why it’s so crucial for behavior change, read “Whole Food Island” from the ikario blog. It really changed my perspective on how to achieve my goals most effectively.
3. Start Gradually With Cheese-Free Days.
This is an optional strategy that I personally wouldn’t use—but it’s ideal for many people. The idea is just to have “Vegan Mondays” or “Cheese-Free Wednesdays” or whatever first. Or do M/W/F. Or Tu/Th. You get the idea.
This obviously makes things easier, as the period of time to resist cravings is limited. You might be stronger in resisting temptations if you know that tomorrow you’ll be allowed to have cheese again.
You can gradually “wean” yourself off of cheese this way. Just slowly increase the number of cheese-free days per week.
Personally, this isn’t my style. I like making “cold turkey” changes like going vegan overnight. I think that’s because I tend to view these things in terms of morality.
Once I’ve really made a decision that I think it’s wrong to do X, I personally want to completely avoid it. I want to cut all my ties to it, take dramatic and massive action, and just usher in a new era immediately. I like to “burn the boats” if possible, and just go all in.
That said, many people prefer a gradual transition to veganism or dairy-free living. And if that’s you, then cheese-free days are a great way to do that.
4. Do a 30-Day Challenge With a Friend.
This is really two tips in one:
- Do a 30-day No-Cheese Challenge.
- Get a friend to do it with you.
The reason to set yourself a 30-day challenge is simple: If you can make it through one month without cheese, it will get much easier after that. You’ll have new habits and fewer urges by that point.
Now, why should you get a friend to do it with you?
Well, one of the tips I always give for new vegans is, “Try to convince a friend to go vegan with you.” Obviously, that doesn’t always work out. But you may be able to convince a friend to at least try temporarily cutting out cheese with you.
Having a friend do the challenge with you can help in many ways:
- You’ll have someone to try vegan cheese (or cheeseless pizzas) with.
- You’ll have someone to talk to about how it’s going.
- You’ll have fewer people around you tempting you with cheesy foods.
Even if your friend doesn’t 100% follow the same rules as you, they can potentially help you as an accountability partner. For some people, having an “accountability partner” is really key to sticking to goals.
Personally for me, I used to be very inconsistent with working on this blog. But a few months ago, I started an accountability group with a few other bloggers. Now, I’ve published on this blog every single day for the last 100 days.
5. Try Some “Vegan Cheese” (Recipes or Store-Bought).
Sorry this is an obvious suggestion, but I have some more specific tips to give, too.
First, be honest with yourself about whether you enjoy making recipes in the kitchen. I’ve recently gotten honest with myself about the fact that I don’t really love cooking or baking. It’s not my passion. And that’s okay.
So for me, I’d lean toward trying various brands of store-bought vegan cheese. However, you may find more satisfaction making your own homemade vegan cheese.
Whether you focus on store-bought, homemade, or a mix of both, the key is to try a wide variety.
Vegan cheese is an art-form that is rapidly developing. New brands of vegan cheese are showing up in grocery stores all the time. And there are entire cookbooks of vegan cheese recipes now:
- Super Easy Vegan Cheese Cookbook: 70 Delicious Plant-Based Cheeses
- This Cheese is Nuts!: Delicious Vegan Cheese at Home
- Artisan Vegan Cheese: From Everyday to Gourmet
- Vegan Cheese: Simple, Delicious Plant-Based Recipes
Seriously… Gone are the days of saying “I tried vegan cheese once—it sucked.” Now you have dozens, or hundreds, of vegan cheeses you can try.
Some will be better than others. None of them will be exactly like real cheese. But some of them will be really freaking good. Some of them will work to replace certain things you liked about cheese. They can help at least a bit.
6. Get Addicted to Nutritional Yeast Instead.
If you’ve been exploring the vegan world for a while, you’ve probably heard of nutritional yeast. And you may have noticed that many vegans seem addicted to it!
Nutritional yeast doesn’t actually taste that much like cheese. But it does fill a similar role. It provides a nutty, tangy, “funky,” fermented, umami taste.
It’s also very flexible in a similar way as cheese. You can kinda put it on everything. Or at least everything salty and savory. (I wouldn’t necessarily put it on sweets…)
See a few of my other blog posts about nutritional yeast:
- Nutritional Yeast Taste: 12 Common Questions Answered
- The 3 Best Nutritional Yeast Brands by Taste, Safety, and Cost
- Where to Find Nutritional Yeast in the Grocery Store (With Pics)
- How Long Does Nutritional Yeast Last?
- Nutritional Yeast vs Brewer’s Yeast: What’s the Difference?
7. Find New Creamy Textures From Plants.
Now let’s think outside the box a bit more with replacing cheese in your diet. If we want to replace specific attributes of cheese, we should try to find some creamy foods for starters.
Here are a list of creamy plant foods that come to mind:
- Plant-based milks
- Nut butters
- Seed butters
- Vegan pesto
- Full-fat coconut milk (in a can)
- Banana nice cream
- Vegan sweet potato sauce
There are obviously others out there, too. If you have a specific kind of creamy cheese texture you’re missing, seek out vegan alternatives and see what you can find!
8. Load Up on Healthy Plant-Based Fats.
Now, this tip actually depends a bit on your broader goals with giving up cheese. If you’re following a specific low-fat diet plan, such as the Starch Solution, then you can skip this one.
But here’s the thing: Part of why we crave cheese is that it’s high in fat. So if you want to “crowd out” cheese with other foods, some of the best contenders will be other high-fat foods.
Personally, I don’t believe there is anything wrong with fat itself. I believe there are healthy fats—especially monounsaturated fat and omega-3 polyunsaturated fat. And pretty much all of the scientific community would back me up on this. (source, source)
As long as you’re not eating excess calories as a whole, these fats are wonderful things to get in your diet. Here are some of the best sources of healthy fat to replace cheese:
- Nut and seed butter
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Avocado oil
The oils are a bit more controversial compared to the whole foods on that list. But as I wrote in my blog post all about oil, I believe olive oil and avocado oil are pretty solid choices, as they are mainly high in monounsaturated fat.
9. Branch Out to New Flavors and Seasonings.
If you used to put cheese on everything, then you need to discover some new flavors and go-to seasonings. Even if you don’t like nutritional yeast, there are many other spices and sauces to try.
Here are a few ideas:
- Liquid smoke
- BBQ sauce
- Vegan Worcestershire sauce
- Garlic and onion
- Soup base (use this paste)
- Pasta sauces
- Peanut Butter (and peanut sauce)
For more additional ideas, see my list of 10 ways to replace nutritional yeast in recipes and 17 vegan ways to replace anchovies. Most ingredients listed in those posts have a umami flavor that can help with replacing cheese, as well.
Another great idea is to buy a vegan cookbook or two. Each cookbook author will have a set of “go to” spices and flavor combinations that they use. You may find a flavor combination in one recipe that changes how you cook many of your dishes.
10. Make Vegan Versions of All Your “Cheesy” Favorites.
However you do it—with “vegan cheese,” or with nutritional yeast, or with avocado or liquid smoke—figure out how to make vegan versions of your favorite meals that typically contain cheese.
Which foods do you see yourself craving the most?
- Mac and cheese?
Some of these can actually just be eaten without cheese, and they’re still pretty good. Pizza is surprisingly good without cheese, for example.
Others will need a “fake cheese” or other ingredient to replace the missing cheese. But every dish has a vegan equivalent out there. Just Google “vegan _____ recipe,” and explore a few of the top results.
Personally, I’d systematically go about finding vegan versions for all your top cheesy meals. Don’t make yourself go without your favorite cheesy meals just because they won’t be 100% the same without real cheese.
11. Break It Down to a Simple, Rational Decision.
Some people won’t like the following perspective. But for me, this is a mindset shift that helps me take ownership of my own life and decisions.
You see… Every day, we make decisions that lead us to have a better life or a worse life. But usually, we don’t think too much about it. We just cave into urges, social pressure, or habit. We don’t make our choices very consciously.
But basically, you need to realize: When you eat dairy, you are actively choosing to make your own life worse—and you are actively choosing to make the world worse.
It’s really that simple… but it’s difficult to remember that.
Too often, we view the consequences of our actions as kinda wishy-washy. We give ourselves excuses like, Hey, maybe eating healthy wasn’t going to “work” anyway. We obscure the actual cause-and-effect relationships we know exist.
But the truth is—you know cheese is bad for you. You know it’s bad for animals. You know it’s bad for the environment. You know eating cheese makes you less happy overall.
Really think about that for a minute.
When you eat cheese, you’re choosing a future life with more unhappiness. You’re choosing a life where you feel sluggish… where you gain weight… where you feel guilty about supporting dairy… where you continue to have acne… and so on.
Here’s how I think of it: Eating cheese is self-betrayal. You are actively choosing to make your own life worse when you put that food in your mouth.
Why hurt yourself like that? Why make your future self experience all those bad consequences? Just for a few minutes of tasty goodness? Just so you don’t have to deal with the social pressure of declining some food offered to you?
Choose your own long-term happiness. Take care of yourself. Be kind to yourself—and don’t cave into a fleeting urge or a moment of social awkwardness.
12. Use a “Commitment Device.”
Have you ever heard of stickK.com? It’s a website where you can set up a “commitment contract” to raise the stakes for any commitment or challenge you want to undertake.
Here’s how it works: You set up a challenge that says you’ll quit cheese for the next 30 days. Then you choose a consequence if you fail—such as, you lose $100.
You can set it up so the money would be donated to stickK, or it can be donated to a charity of your choice (or an “anti-charity,” like a political party you despise). You can also set up a “referee” for your commitment.
Having a referee helps if you don’t trust yourself to actually report the truth of whether you succeeded with your goal. You can have a friend or family member be the “referee” who reports to stickK whether you succeeded or failed.
13. Remember: Your Tastebuds Will Adjust.
Here’s another encouraging thing to remember: Your tastebuds change depending on the foods you regularly eat. And it only takes a few weeks before your new diet tastes more appealing to you!
I’ve personally witnessed this when it comes to salt. Usually I buy “low sodium” cans of soup. But occasionally the store doesn’t have those, so I buy the normal cans.
Whenever I’m switching from the low-sodium cans to the full-sodium cans, I can’t believe how salty they taste. It just seems outrageous how salty they are. But then I get used to it. And when I switch back to the low-sodium cans, they taste so bland.
You get accustomed to the amount of salt, sugar, and fat in your diet. You come to crave that amount of sweetness, saltiness, and fattiness.
And something similar can be said for the addictive effects of the casomorphin compounds in cheese: You may feel strong urges for them in the first few days or weeks after quitting, but those urges will fade away.
So when you feel bored without cheese—or when you feel a strong urge to go for cheese again—just remember that you only need to get through a few weeks like this. Then you’ll start to adjust and not crave it as much anymore.
14. Learn From Your Failures and Keep Going.
Failure is a part of success. Everybody fails at some points in their journey toward achieving their goals, and going vegan or dairy-free is no different.
I’ll share two of my personal stories, in case that helps at all:
- On my second day of being vegetarian, I ate some leftover pepperoni pizza from earlier that week, and I didn’t realize it until it was almost gone.
- Once at a restaurant, I didn’t bother asking if the veggie burger was vegan or not. When I bit into it, I realized there was real cheese in it—like strings of cheese.
I actually wrote a whole blog post about “vegan slip-up guilt,” if that interests you. But besides just consoling you and telling you that it’s okay to mess up, I want to give a specific bit of advice on how to make use of your failures.
Whenever you have a “bad day” and fail at your goals or habits, you should look very closely at what happened. Watch it back in slow motion. This is another bit of advice I got from Shane Melaugh at ikario.
Examine your failure like you’re watching slow-motion footage of a car crash. What caused the crash? Which driver was at fault? And how could you set up barriers and systems that might prevent a similar crash in the future?
If you learn from each failure, then you will make rapid progress. You will have fewer failures as you go. And they will be new failures, not just the same error over and over.
In the end, however, failure is okay. Failure is necessary. Don’t fear it. Embrace it as part of the path. As long as you learn from it and keep going, then it’s all part of the plan. You’ll get there soon enough.
Two More Recommendations for Your Vegan Journey
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2. This is the best vegan starter kit I know of. It’s a bundle of 9 beautiful e-books that help you transition to a healthy plant-based diet—the right way. The advice is spot-on, and it has print-outs and checklists that make it easy to implement. Read my full review of Nutriciously here.