Tuesday, January 17, 2012

“But I could never give up cheese!” - A step-by-step guide to breaking the habit

The one objection I hear most often from people considering making the transition to a vegan diet is “But I could never give up cheese!”

Why cheese? Why not milk, butter, yogurt, sour cream, or ice cream? Because cheese contains concentrated amounts of casomorphins, a natural opiate found in dairy products. Yes, cheese is actually addictive! No wonder the thought of giving it up is hard for cheese-lovers to contemplate.

If you’ve thought you could never give up cheese, take some time and read up on dairy production. (Here is a concise summary of the issues.) Then read the label on the back of a block of cheese, and take note of the saturated fat, cholesterol, and high sodium. (Or try this online nutrition facts tool.  Keep in mind that the 1 oz. serving shown is a single 1-inch cube of cheese!) Consider whether this is really something you want in your diet.

If you arrive at the conclusion that cheese is something you’d like to do without, here is a step-by-step guide to successfully breaking the addiction.

1. Reduce

On cheese-heavy foods, start by using less, giving your palate time to learn to appreciate the other flavors cheese may be drowning out. Order your pizza easy on the cheese, and add on extra veggies. Use just a sprinkle in your bean burrito and add some fresh cilantro to amp up the flavor.

2. Try it without

There are many foods we add cheese to out of habit, and not because they add tremendously to the taste of a dish. Find the foods you can easily appreciate without cheese. Try leaving off the sprinkle of Parmesan on top of your spaghetti marinara, or the slice off your veggie burger. Chances are you won’t miss it much.
Cheese-free pizza? Surprisingly yummy!
Then try eliminating cheese on the foods you can’t imagine without it. A cheeseless pizza? Find a pizzeria with a terrific cheese-free crust and delicious sauce, and smother it in your favorite veggies. Nachos? Add extra salsa, guacamole, or veggies instead. You may just surprise yourself and prefer foods this way.

3. Substitute flavors and textures
As you start to eliminate cheese, you may miss the creamy texture or the umami flavor. Substituting other foods with similar textures or flavors may help. Here are some to try; they may sound a little strange at first, but trust me - you’ll be pleasantly surprised:

Vegan butter - try a little Earth Balance or Smart Balance 100% Organic/Certified Vegan in place of cream cheese on your breakfast bread, or try an ultra-thin layer on a sandwich if it seems dry without that slice of cheese.
Avocado - use slices in place of cheese on subs, wraps, tacos, or burritos.
Artichoke hearts or tapenade - substitute for cheese on a bruschetta or pizza, or in a salad.
Crushed or ground walnuts - use crushed in veggie dishes or ground in pasta in place of grated Parmesan.
Hummus - if you’re missing cheese and crackers as a snack, try hummus or bean dip as an alternative. These also make great sandwich spreads.

4. Try cheese alternatives

You probably won’t appreciate non-dairy cheeses or cheese alternatives until you’ve been off cheese for a week or two. Then it will take a little trial and error to find your favorites.

Start with Daiya - most vegans agree it’s a favorite. Made from tapioca, Daiya melts well and has great flavor. Just start with a little less than you would have normally used with dairy cheeses.

Most grocery or health food stores carry rice cheeses or soy cheeses. (Make sure your soy cheese is vegan; some contain casein, a milk protein.) Some also carry nut cheeses, which have great umami flavor and are a terrific alternative for those without nut allergies.

5. Make your own non-dairy cheeses
Have you ever thought about making cheese? Making non-dairy cheeses at home is not as hard as you might think. For example, this vegan Parmesan takes just a moment to prepare. VegNews’ macaroni and cheese recipe takes no longer than any other homemade mac and cheese. (That cheese sauce also works great for casseroles.) Or if you want to get fancy, buy some cheese cloth and make an almond feta or baked cashew cheese.

After a while, you’ll begin to see that the dependency on cheese is less about flavor and more about habit and addiction. Don’t let that be an obstacle to a healthier, more compassionate diet!


  1. How about for thickening a casserole? And (sadly) nix on the walnuts where my father in law is concerned, unless it's commercially prepared nut butter. Diverticulitis, you know...

  2. The technique for that totally depends on the casserole in question. Sometimes, it's as simple as stirring a little flour or cornstarch into the casserole's sauce. For things where flavor is needed as well as thickening, pureed vegetables can do the trick.

    If you send me a recipe as an example, I can give you a better answer.

    1. Hmm... Your basic baked whole-wheat pasta shapes, for example? I load that sort of thing up with diced veggies so flavor isn't as much of a problem as it is having a binder to help it all stick together. Preferably not flour or conrstarch since Hagatha has to keep the carbs down. (Me too, for that matter.) Plus I never seem to get it cooked enough to get rid of the "floury" taste.

      It's hard enough trying to sneak vegetarian dishes in when I'm dealing with an old-school "I want my meat still bleeding" carnivore (father in law). Abandoning cheese? Not gonna happen, but at least I can cut down on its use, right?

    2. If you're happy with your flavors, then you want to use a starch thickener - probably arrowroot starch - just to thicken up your sauce. The amount you use is small, so the effects calorie and carb-wise would be minimal.

      Here's a bit on thickeners: http://www.foodsubs.com/ThickenStarch.html

    3. Thanks for the tip! Got any links for non-dairy "cheese" that isn't tofu?

      (Note: Yay! HTML markup works in the comments!)

    4. None of the ones I linked to in the article - the commercial brand or the homemade - have soy in them. (I'm mostly soy-free.) And believe me, they're all DELICIOUS.

    5. I don't have any trouble with edamame or soy sauce, but soy milk and tofu I can't stomach. I'm just weird that way.