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Cheese and the Obesity Epidemic

February 8, 2012
By Neal Barnard, MD
|27Comments|


The epidemic of obesity has grown dramatically in recent years, most notably in children, one-third of whom have been swept up by weight problems and are at risk for heart disease, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer, among other problems.Unfortunately, the battle against obesity is getting a lot harder. First of all, people trying to lose weight have been lied to. They have been told that the problem is a lack of exercise, when, in fact, studies clearly show that weight gain in the United States over the past 30 years is almost entirely due to changing eating habits, not a lack of physical activity.They have been lied to about food, with quick-fix, low-carb advocates pointing a finger of blame at bread and fruit, when carbohydrates actually have only four calories per gram, unlike fats, which have nine. That’s why people in Asian countries stayed thin and healthy until Western fast-food chains brought in meat, cheese, and other junk foods that displaced traditional rice-based meals.

They have been lied to by some well-meaning, but not-yet-well-informed fat-acceptance advocates who, while helpfully rallying against discrimination, have also sought to minimize obesity’s dangers with phrases like “obese but healthy.” You can also be “a smoker, but healthy,” but that simply means the complications have not yet arrived.

But most of all, they have been lied to by the meat and dairy industries, which aim to convince us that we need cheese, meat, and other unhealthful foods. The federal government, traditionally beholden to industry, has joined in the duplicity, not only by subsidizing the very foods that cause weight gain and by dumping them into our children’s school lunch programs, but by issuing dietary guidelines that have been too timid to chuck unhealthful foods out.

As a result of this lack of forthrightness, obesity has settled in for the long term, and many people have simply become resigned to it for themselves and their children. The consequences will be devastating: Experts estimate that one in three children born in 2000 will go on to develop diabetes—a disease strongly linked to excess weight.

The obesity epidemic is not caused by inactivity, bread, rice, gluttony, weak will, or a bad childhood. It is caused by a tsunami of unhealthful foods, and one of the worst, perhaps surprisingly, is cheese. Typical cheeses are about 70 percent fat, and every last fat gram packs nine calories that no one needs. Most of that fat is saturated (“bad”) fat—the kind that increases cholesterol levels and puts us at risk for diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and other diseases. A 2-ounce cheese serving also packs 350 milligrams of sodium and, ounce for ounce, as much cholesterol as a heart-stopping steak.

In 1909, the average American consumed only 3.8 pounds of cheese in a year’s time. Today, that number is pushing 34 pounds. That’s an increase of 30 pounds per person this year, next year, and again the year after that, thanks to the combined promotional efforts of government and industry. Of those extra 30 pounds of cheese we are stuffing into our mouths every year, it would only take one or two to stick in order to explain the entire weight problem in America. Of course, there are other co-conspirators in the obesity epidemic, too, notably the rise in meat and sugar consumption.

U.S. Per Capita Cheese Consumption (pounds)A Wake-Up Call

PCRM erected billboards in New York State depicting a heavy-set man and woman and pointing out, clearly and simply, that cheese contributes to obesity. Judging by the press response, it was a message that was badly needed. Many reporters had no idea that cheese was so high in fat and calories.

We knew that the dairy industry would object. But the fact is, dairy farmers and their families need this message, too. After all, they run the same risks as their customers.

Some overweight people may object, too. Just as cancer organizations have used images of tobacco-damaged lungs and anti-drunk-driving organizations have shown grim accident scenes, graphic visual reminders are painful for the victims of these conditions.

Certainly, there is no value in blaming overweight people for a condition that results from a mixture of industry marketing, government promotions, addictive qualities of foods, genetic vulnerabilities, medication effects on appetite, and, in the end, overeating. Instead, it is essential to zero in on the problem foods, expose them, and do what we can to get them off our collective plates. The PCRM billboards are a mirror, showing obesity as it really is, linking it appropriately to cheese, and making it clear that there is a problem here.

The worst thing that doctors or the public can do is to slow down the fight against obesity and against the foods that contribute to it. Prying a generation away from tobacco was tough, and prying people away from obesogenic foods today will be far more challenging. People struggling with weight problems deserve understanding and support, and we do them no favors if we hide the problem, sugar-coat it, or fail to address its causes. We have to face the dangers of obesity directly, make it clear that certain foods are serious problems, and do all we can to support the changes that are essential for good health.

For more information on how to optimize your health, visit NealBarnard.org

Photo credit: Bart Heird



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27 responses to Cheese and the Obesity Epidemic
  1. I was so very disappointed this story was not well received on NPR. I think we all need to write into NPR defending this campaign.

  2. Yes dairy farmers and their families need to hear this message too. However, it is their livelihood and it’s more about the almighty dollar more than it is health, unfortunately.

  3. I am a Vegan who has participated in your 21 day kickstart, and I own your cookbook. I have lost 40 lbs with a low calorie, low fat diet, as well as daily yoga and cardio. I am so disappointed in PCRM for this billboard campaign. It is shaming and dehumanizing for overweight people. As someone who has lost a great deal of weight (and still losing) I know that something as simple as cutting out dairy will not lead to miraculous thinness, and that eating cheese is not the sole cause of obesity for most people. Stigma does not lead to changing habits. I can’t imagine an overweight person who sees that billboard will feel hopeful and informed. Self-hate and shame do not lead to weight loss.

    The key to my continued weight loss is self-respect, love, and compassion which I gratefully learned through yoga. Casting overweight people as disgusting “others” hurts your cause and your image greatly. I agree with your opinions on health and diet, but I will no longer buy your books or support PCRM. As a Vegan, to see one of our most informed voices taking this path is very sad.

  4. In that same time period the amount of butter and lard consumed has gone way down, and the amount of margarine has gone up. So I could make the argument that because we have stopped eating so much butter, we are getting sicker. You’re argument is based too loosely on just one food ingredient. I don’t disagree with you though, we do eat too much cheese. The other argument that because fat has 9 calories, it’s bad because you’ll be eating too many more calories doesn’t hold water as well. The amount of calories in fat has nothing to do with obesity. It’s just more calories, so you can just eat less of it. I think the argument lies in growing food naturally like we once did. Stop eating out of boxes, and instead go to your local farmer and buy your food from her. Stop buying from all the processed food distributers. They’re the one’s making us sicker.

    If you are interested in seeing a study done on how our eating habits have changed over the last century, go here: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com/2012/02/my-tedx-talk-american-diet-historical.html

    The message dairy farmers need to hear is that they should feed their animals the diet that the animal was meant to eat. Cows eat grass, not corn. And stop putting drugs in them, unless they are needed to treat a disease, in which case the animal should not be used for food until it’s safe.

  5. As much as I love healthy lifestyles, which include healthy diets, it’s articles like this that simply can not be completely true … if so, I should be deathly sick and morbidly obese. I live on a farm in Wisconsin. We don’t milk cows anymore, but from birth to age 40, all I drank was cows milk straight from our bulk tank, along with meat every day of my life – and cheese is a ‘given’, of course. I eat some sort of sugar everyday, without question. And yet, here I am – age 50, 118 lbs – the same as the day I graduated from High School, back in 1980. As I first mentioned, I am totally an advocate of health – but there must be a different angle to the obesity epidemic – and not lay blame on the farmers who are working with pride to provide food for everyone. I wish I had the answers – but what I can say with confidence is that meat and dairy, alone, can not be the culprit in this equation.

  6. Arguing against government subsidies is one thing you may get agreement on.
    But arguing that cheese, as a low carbohydrate food causes obesity is way way off.
    I have helped many people lose weight and obtain improved health, and increasing full fat dairy always helps. Yep, increasing dairy helps with weight loss as long as you also keep processed foods and processed carbs down.
    This article is either a hit piece against dairy farmers, or has some other purpose.

  7. This article jumps around quite a bit and makes several huge leaps in logic. People in Asian countries also eat a lot less sugar and processed carbohydrate foods. Pointing the finger at cheese seems to be a case of seeing what you want to see to serve your own worldview. The answer, I’m sure, is much more complex. While I’m no big fan of cheese from a health standpoint, I can’t get behind this kind of self-serving “reporting.”

  8. I’d like to refer readers of this article to a relevant piece from Time magazine, which discusses a Yale study on the stigmatizing and negative impact of “headless fatty” media campaigns: http://healthland.time.com/2011/05/12/fat-stigma-how-online-news-worsens-the-problem-of-obesity/

    I’ve communicated directly with PCRM and Dr. Barnard about this issue, and the absolutely irresponsible suggestion that obesity is a single-factor problem. It disappoints me greatly to see Dr. Barnard still defending this poor campaign decision.

  9. I’m sorry, I think the assumptions the author makes are ridiculous. ‘obesity is not caused by inactivity, bread…..’ ??? He can’t be serious, this is the most poorly written article on nutrition I have read. Bread, gluten, grains in general have a *lot* to do with obesity, as does inactivity. People do not get fat on cheese in its natural form, they may get fat eating cheetos or cheese curls, or other processed junk that has cheese in it, but obese people are not sitting down eating 4 blocks of natural cheese in one sitting and if they were, that is not the problem, the problem is the processed crap they eat, diet sodas, sugar and yes, not getting off the couch or chair and moving, exercising. I thought this was one of those joke articles by The Onion at first glance. There is nothing wrong with cheese in small amounts if you can tolerate dairy, some blood types can, some can’t. I love Kris Carr’s info on health and how she puts veggies and fruits front and center but not everyone will function as a vegetarian, I think its dangerous to imply that. Check out Dr. Dadamo’s work on blood type and keep in mind things that people like Kris suggest which is juicing, eating mostly veggies and fruits, but realize you are an individual, there is no one right diet for everyone. And most important, stay away from grains and sugar!
    Signed, nutritionist who deals with very sick pepole very day and gets them well

  10. I agree that cheese is not necessary in one’s diet and that American’s eat way too much of it (I say this because of the poor nutritional value you get from cheese for the high caloric / fat cost). However, I disagree that the obesity epidemic is caused by people consuming any one food product.

    American’s eat way too much in general. Cheese consumption has risen because intake of overall calories has risen, and this is why obesity rates have also risen.

    I personally believe eating a vegan diet is the healthiest way of eating. But this is only when the vegan diet is based on fruits, vegetables, nuts and beans. These are the foods that have the most nutritional value and how we should be building our diets. It has nothing to do with the exclusion of cheese – or any other food item.

    There was a blog post yesterday regarding Veganism and Diabetes / High Blood Pressure / Obesity. Link -> http://veganhope.com/2011/02/08/say-goodbye-to-vegan-junk-food/

    Read this article and read the comments. There are many reports of vegans with diabetes and obesity. Many comments report being vegan but focusing on junk vegan foods and not eating fruits and vegetables.

    Eating cheese or not is sadly, not the key here. The key is what you DO eat that is the primary base of your diet (for nutrition) and HOW MUCH you eat (for weight management). Yes, if the primary base of your diet is cheese, that is not healthy. But if the primary base of your diet is pretty much anything other than fruits/veggies/beans you are putting yourself at a high risk for health issues even if from a calorie standpoint your body does not become overweight.

    American’s need to eat less AND eat better.

  11. I was a PCRM and Neal Barnard supporter until the billboards went up. I’m vegan. I’m fat. I don’t eat cheese. There is more to obesity than one food item. We need a holistic view to obesity including encouraging activity, encouraging eating more plant based foods and yes accepting that there will be obese people who are active and eat healthy.

  12. I am not buying this either. The focus needs to be put on eating foods in their natural and raw state. Raw milk and cheese are incredibly healthy. When my children were young we lived on a dairy farm and they drank raw milk. My kids never got sick, no sniffles, ear infections etc. Their Dr. actually said “I never see your kids unless it is for thier physical”. Choosing local grass fed meat is good for you and rich in omega 3s. I stopped all processed food and lost 50 pounds. The problem is that we are inundated with do this, do that. My solution is to look at what your grandparents ate. They most likely cooked their food and never went to McDonalds. Overeating junk and processed food is what is causing obesity.

  13. Samantha,

    Being overweight certainly is not disgusting. Matter of fact there is nothing that disgusting. They could even look cuter and friendlier than the others. But there is something scary: some of us are eating to death which is as scary as being underweight.

    Congrats with your new path. I admire you for what you have accomplished.

  14. We recently travelled in USA and we were SHOCKED at the consumption of soda – the cup sizes were like out of a ‘giant’ movie and everyone was consuming. It was a shock to us as this trend has not reached New Zealand in this manner – and I hope it never does! Even the coffee cup sizes were massive. If we went back to the sizings that our grandparents ate and drank we would find a huge difference in consumption and therefore weight gain. Just an observation!

  15. This is a poorly written and insensitive argument that fails to adequately address the fact that our obesity epidemic is the result of a plethora of problems, which are certainly more complicated than cheese. In the battle against obesity its associated health problems, teaching moderation is key.

  16. Just checked back to see if I was alone in thinking this was a simplistic clunker of an article. Looks like a lot of people agree. Good to see others also recognize shoddy reporting and nutrition “science.”

  17. I love cheese and have never been healthier. But I exercise in my home gym (treadmill and elliptical) everyday.

  18. I like how it’s always an animal food that causes us to be fat/sick/unhealthy. You don’t hear plant-based advocators talk about how the amount of sugar consumption has skyrocketed in the same way they talk about animal products. We now eat 150-170 pounds per year, when we used to eat 5 pounds per year. He did mention sugar, but all I heard was cheese. I had to go back and read it to find it. They don’t come down on Coca-Cola the way they come down on cheese or beef. Frito Lay does nothing wrong with their food apparently. Or if you want to blame cheese, why does he not take a stab at the awful products Kraft puts out? Velveeta? That’s not food! Even their “real” cheese isn’t really cheese. Not the way nature intended at least. Does he even know about pasture-raised dairy, and it’s benefits vs. CAFO beef?

    The point here is that there is never a focus on food quality. Beef is unhealthy? But bread is good for you? Take a look at the nutritional content of a 3oz piece of grass-fed liver and stack that against a loaf of bread. Even the whole wheat variety. Google it, and you’ll find that there are many more vitamins, that are naturally occurring. You don’t even have to enrich the liver to give it the vitamins that they had to put in the bread to make it seem more nutritious.

    I agree with him on a couple points. He says obesity is not caused by lack of exercise. Now there are a lot of good reasons to exercise, and everyone should exercise, but if you don’t exercise, it’s not the main reason you are obese. The other point he makes is that the reason people are obese is that they are hit with a tsunami of unhealthful foods. Unfortunately he refers to the wrong tsunami (if it even is one…). Sure, cheese is part of that tsunami, if he is talking about Kraft’s cheese. But he doesn’t bring up the fact the no one really makes their own food anymore. He does mention fast-food, but in doing so takes another stab at beef and cheese, and leaves sugar out of the equation once again (and yes, that bun has nearly the same effect on you as sugar, and yes, that cheese and meat are also not good forms of cheese and meat, so his point is somewhat valid.)

    On to fat and cholesterol. The debate is still out on saturated fat. There have been studies indicating it, and studies exonerating it. Coconut oil, which is high in saturated fat has been shown to be beneficial to a number of ailments. Dr. Oz has even testified on it’s behalf. And fats from animals raised properly are also very healthy. The Inuit eat wild game almost exclusively, and have much lower rates of civilized diseases than we do. The cholesterol myth is only being prolonged by the statin makers and the billions of dollars they make off them. Rates of heart disease in people with high levels of cholesterol and low/normal levels of cholesterol are nearly identical. Cholesterol is actually the substance that is being sent to the cell walls to repair inflamed tissue.

    Maybe the billboard he speaks of should have had cheese on it, but it should have had a Kraft label on it, and it should have been surrounded with a number of other brands like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Frito Lay, and Nabisco. Processed food is the real enemy here, whether that processed food is cheese, cheetos, or vegan crunchy something-rathers. Dr Barnard should be ashamed to be presenting information in this way. It’s irresponsible and is only confusing the public more about what is really important. Someone in his position should be advocating a diet of whole, real foods. Whether that diet includes animal products or not is less important than ridding ourselves of the processed food epidemic.

  19. I also find the attack on cheese unwarranted. Anything in excess is a problem, and the increase in consumptions is shocking. But in my opinion, the health probelms in the United States have much more to do with overprocessing and unhealthy additions to our food supply.

  20. How about personal responsibility? This article was ridiculous and beneath this site’s usual postings.

  21. i’m a vegan and i’m fat. i haven’t had cheese in over 4 years and i’ve actually gained weight since becoming vegan. but this doesn’t mean i’m unhealthy. i run, practice yoga, and workout regularly. PCRM is fat shaming. how is this supposed to encourage people to be vegan? it’s not going to. it’s so sad. being fat does not always mean you’re unhealthy, just as being thin does not always mean you’re healthy.

  22. Let me say I am a vegan and a raw food enthusiast. Still, cheese isn’t the end all be all for obesity. The amount of raw foods we eat, portion control, exercise, and self love are all factors that play a role in obesity. Even though Im vegan, my four year old is a vibrant vegetarian. I want her to eventually make the transition, but if she does, it will be her choice. And its hard to believe that with all the raw organic foods and filtered water we consume, yoga, nature walks, and most of all, the QT we share, that a cheese stick will be the thing that puts her on the road to diabetes. Not to say this article wasn’t full of wonderful information! But geez, what happened to all things in moderation? I’d eat cheese here and there if we fed are animals right, didn’t torture or keep them locked in cages, and then kill them after we got the goods..

  23. We have debunked this absurdity on numerous occasions and will continue to do so. Watch for another response to the PCRM’s irresponsible and false advertisements shortly.

    For more information on Cheese and the PCRM’s misleading advertising campaign, visit us on Facebook.com/ArtisanalCheese or Twitter.com/Artisanal

    https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150543305429383

    The simple truth is that Cheese is one of the healthiest foods on the planet. This is an irrefutable fact.

  24. Absolutely ridiculous claims. Cheese and diary are the main reasons for obesity? Seriously? What about sugar? Red meat? White bread? Inactivity? They don’t contribute to obesity? I have a really hard time swallowing that concept. It’s been proven over and over and over again that a healthy diet AND exercise go hand in hand. It is NOT one particular food to blame, but a variety of contributing factors. Cheese has also been proven over and over again that it is one of the healthiest foods in the world. But as I always state, everything in moderation! Sitting down and eating a pound of cheese constantly? Of course that would contribute to obesity. So would any other food that you do the same with.

    I wrote a response to these claims and billboards on my blog. Check it out for further information.

    http://thecheeseandmouse.com/2012/02/16/shame-on-you-pcrm-cheese-and-obesity-false-claims/

  25. I read this article today and was floored at how ridiculous it is. I am so glad to read the comments and see I am not the only one who thinks this! I agree – what about SUGAR?? Or processed foods in general?

  26. I have to say right away that I am one of those “well-meaning” fat acceptance advocates. So, if you don’t want to hear what I have to say, just ignore me. The only thing billboards, such as these, do is to stigmatize people and set them up for weight cycling. Rebecca Puhl, PhD, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University in New Haven stated in a recent interview, “The real reality is that significant, sustainable weight loss is not achievable for most people.” She adds, “We know that the most that we can really expect people to lose and keep off over time from conventional weight loss programs is about 10% of body weight.”

    “Of course, some people lose more than that, but the vast majority regains that weight within one to five years,” she says.

    Studies show that dieting, even that considered “naturalistic”, among young people lead to weight cycling [Naturalistic weight reduction efforts predicted weight gain and onset of obesity in adolescent girls; http://ebn.bmj.com/content/3/3/88.full

    There is an evidence-based compassionate alternative to conventional dieting: Health At Every Size®. For more information on Health At Every Size, you can find a general explanation on Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Health_at_Every_Size) or find in-depth research-based information in the book Health At Every Size – The Surprising Truth About Your Weight by Dr. Linda Bacon (http://www.lindabacon.org/HAESbook/).

  27. You don’t understand evolutionary biology (check out your teeth in a mirror or ask your dentist what incisors are for) and haven’t bothered to look at the close relationship between access to animal fats and proteins and human health (there is plenty of historical data going as far back as ancient Mesopotamia). Processed sugars and starches combined with low activity are the problem. I commend anyone who chooses to give up animal proteins for the cause of low-environmental impact or the suffering caused to animals, but understand that veganism is not the optimal human diet. We’re omnivores. It’s that simple. Veganism is basically a form of (theisic or agnostic) religious ascetic practice. Respect yourselves for doing it, but don’t confuse it with medical wisdom and don’t become fanatical proselytizers.