The Cheese-Cancer Connection: Why Hormones in Dairy are Dangerous
Who moved my cheese? Or who moved my cheese from the healthy list of foods I should eat, to the unhealthy list of foods that I should avoid? Dr. Neal Barnard, a doctor, activist and author of 13 books, who has a lot to say about cheese, dairy, and how the hormones in cows affect your body, that's who.
I interviewed Dr. Barnard last week to try to better understand why he believes cheese should come with a warning label, and why he wants the USDA to take dairy off the list of recommended daily foods when it relaunches its nutrition guidelines next year.
Dr. Barnard spoke about the connection between the food we eat and the hormones in our bodies. His newest book: Your Body in Balance, to be published in February, tells how eating too much dairy may cause your body to experience “hormone haywire” which can contribute to all sorts of health problems, including higher lifetime incidence of hormonal cancers, such as breast and prostate cancer, as well as contribute to debilitating menstrual cramps, mood disorders, fertility issues, and erectile dysfunction. Does he have your attention yet?
Dr. Neal Barnard has chosen cheese as the unlikely battleground in the mission to get Americans off their three-times a day dairy habit, and instead of doing it by marketing substitutes the way plant-based burgers have gained momentum by mimicking the real thing so people will make the switch without feeling a sacrifice-- he is coming at it from a health and medical point of view. Want to reduce your cancer risk? Ditch the dairy.
Essentially, Barnard explained during an hour-long interview with The Beet last week, "Cheese contains trace levels of estrogen and other chemicals given to pregnant cows that stick around in their system and pass to us through their milk, that when eaten by us on a regular basis will mess with the body’s own natural hormonal balance."
(As someone who used to eat up to 5 or 6 servings of dairy a day, including milk, cheese, more cheese and ice cream, I listened and cringed. Luckily I have been eating plant-based for six months, but the cheese part of it has been the hardest for me.)
"When you introduce even small amounts of estrogen into your body, it increases the risk of hormone-related cancers, such as breast, uterine, and prostate cancer," says Barnard. "Milk also contains estrogen, but cheese is more condensed. The worst offender? Goat cheese has even more of it. All animal cheese is laden with fat and hormones, which add up."
Dr. Barnard founded the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), which proposed that cheese should come with a warning label that states eating this product may increase your risk of breast cancer. During our interview, he added, it actually impacts all hormonal cancers, including prostate cancer, uterine cancer and ovarian. The label sounds radical, but then again so did the initial idea of adding a warning label to cigarettes some five decades ago. Backing him up are 12,000 doctors who are members of PCRM, founded by Barnard 35 years ago. The warning label on cigarettes created the first time doctors asked consumers to begin taking one's health into our own hands. In the intervening decades, smoking has gone from "everyone does it" to "I don't know anyone dumb enough to do it." The question is will cheese ever be that for the next generation?
First some corroborating science: A new study out of the Mayo Clinic and published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association just came out that looked at large studies and concluded that the consumption of dairy products by men corresponds to a higher incidence of prostate cancer, which is the most common form of cancer for men and the second deadliest cancer for men. (Lung cancer tops the list of most fatal cancers for both men and women, followed by prostate for men and breast for women.) The good news in the study: Men who ate a more plant-based diet had a lower lifetime incidence of prostate cancer. Diet was clearly correlated with cancer risk in the vast populations they reviewed: More dairy equaled more prostate cancer; less dairy equaled less prostate cancer. Since men have a 10 percent chance of developing prostate cancer during their lifetime, this is not a small finding.
During the month of October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Barnard got attention for the warning labels mentioning Breast Cancer: “What we are talking about is how hormones in our diet affect a woman’s health” The warning label specifically points to breast cancer, since according to Barnard's new book, Your Body in Balance, women with breast cancer who consume the more fatty foods, including dairy products, in the form of cheese, whole milk, and butter, have the highest chance of recurrence and dying from their disease. “Women who ate the largest amount of fatty food had a 49 percent increased risk of dying of their cancer,” in one study, according to Barnard. He compares the fatty food group against women who ate smaller amounts of animal fat and dairy. According to Barnard, the amount of dairy or fatty foods that is enough to place a woman in the risk group is one serving a day.
So if the healthy population moved to quit smoking when the tobacco labels informed the public of the dangers of cigarettes, it makes sense that we need to try to kick the cheese addiction. And it is addictive since the casomorphin in cheese acts on the brain’s dopamine receptors as effectively as morphine or other opiates. But if quitting cigarettes is hard, banishing cheese may be less difficult by comparison since there are decent nut cheese substitutes on the market. But let’s get back to Dr. Barnard and his dairy campaign.
Barnard trained as a psychiatrist, and now a nutrition expert. He gets knocked by critics for training as a shrink rather than an internist, but when I asked him what he says to the critics, he explained: “There is no nutrition specialty in medical school, so whether you train to be a psychiatrist or cardiologist, it becomes clear very early on that nutrition is a large part of what makes people healthy or not.
He also tells the story of how he became plant-based. “Before I went to medical school, I was working in the morgue of the hospital as an assistant to the pathologist, and our job was to do the autopsy when someone died in the hospital. We had the grim job of figuring out why someone had died. When the pathologist cut the ribs out to examine a patient’s heart, it was obvious that there was atherosclerosis. Fat deposits were all around the heart. I sewed the ribs back on, went to lunch that day and saw they were serving ribs. It had the same white fatty marble in the meat like the body had and it looked the same. It occurred to me this was another dead body on my plate, and I couldn’t eat it.” It was the start of a journey of not eating meat, and of connecting plant-based eating with health and wellness. His new book, Your Body in Balance makes the point that avoiding fat, especially animal fat, is one way to lower your risk of cancer and disease.
Until he petitioned the FDA to add warning labels to cheese this past fall, stating that it increases the risk of breast cancer, Barnard had been known only to a part of the medical community that focuses on how plant-based eating can affect heart health, diabetes, certain cancers and improve overall wellbeing.
The benefits of avoiding dairy that are covered in the book include fertility and mood, and avoiding "the little blue pill" for erectile dysfunction. He explains that the mechanics of male sexuality are the same as heart disease since when arteries get blocked from plaque and blood flow is restricted to the heart, legs, or lower body, the same is happening with the male erection. In fact, a lack of ability to have a healthy sex life is often an early warning sign that the man has clogged arteries and should see a cardiologist. They usually seek treatment with testosterone, but more often they can benefit from a change in diet, by going plant-based, according to Barnard in his upcoming book.
Then they followed that up with the cheese warning label stunt. Except for him and the 12,000 doctors who are part of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, it’s not any more of a stunt than when the government agreed to put warning labels on cigarettes in 1965 and then strengthed it from "Smoking may be hazardous to your health" to a more declarative "Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer" and other diseases. Dr. Barnard believes there are parallels to smoking then and eating cheese now: If consumed daily, even one serving of cheese a day increases the risk of hormone-related cancers such as breast and prostate. He also wants us to cut out fatty foods, oils and eat a whole-food, plant-based diet.
But hormones mess up your body every day, not just when disease strikes. Barnard did research with women facing debilitating menstrual cramps and found that if they go off dairy completely they can see a benefit in just one month. “Some women have bad cramps one day a month but for other women, it’s off the charts, and I started to think about hormones in food and how it could affect this. I suggested something that no doctor had ever suggested before," meaning he changed their diets.
"I said to her: How about we get all animal products off your plate and no oils either,” Barnard recalls. He saw such dramatic results that he launched a study on menstrual cramps and diet to back it up. He asked the participants to get off dairy, fatty foods, and oils. For one of his patients, the improvement was immediate. Barnard also recalls one woman who couldn't get pregnant actually did when her diet changed. It was a hit with most of the participants, who saw the severity and length of days they experienced crams diminish in just one month.
I asked Barnard what do you have for breakfast? “There are a million choices. It depends if I am traveling. Oatmeal and blueberries or cinnamon. But when I’m traveling — I was over in England and there, people often have baked beans and mushrooms and stewed tomatoes. For the rest of the world it’s totally normal to have vegetables or rice and beans for breakfast. Beans are a perfect protein, and this is a great food to start the day with. They do it in Australia and Mexico. They have black beans for breakfast. In the Middle East, it would be hummus. They are not having eggs for breakfast. It’s beans.”