In what seems like a previous life, long before I committed to a plant-based diet and an ethical vegan lifestyle, I was in love with cheese. I mean desperately, obsessively in love with cheese. However, this was a totally one-sided love affair because one thing was for certain: cheese did not love me.
It all started, as so many problems do, during my childhood. My mother used to host art shows in our home, which was always exciting for me not only because I'm an artist at heart, but because this always meant that there would be a table full of hors d'oeuvres. Being that I was only a kid, it was easy to hang around the hors d'oeuvres table, picking at food without judgment while the adults oohed and aahed over gorgeous Black art. I took full advantage of their collective distraction and zeroed in on what I really wanted: cheese.
You know the stuff, the solid blocks of cheddar and pepper jack that come wrapped in shiny metallic wrappers. My mother would cut them up into bite-sized little cubes and lay them out next to some tasty crackers. I had no interest in the crackers, however. It was the cheese that I'd come for. I'd stand there, popping cube after delicious cube of cheese into my mouth, damn near melting into ecstasy under the snack table. I really wasn't concerned whether or not the guests had gotten their share. As far as I was concerned, Christmas had come early, and the cheese was all mine.
This marked the beginning of a years-long habit. As a kid, I'd run to the fridge to munch on individually wrapped slices of American cheese. In elementary and middle school, I chose whatever cheese option they had for the day, whether it be pizza or a cheeseburger, or an ooey gooey grilled cheese. Our after school hangout spot was the nearby pizza shop. During high school, I'd spend what little money I had to engage in my morning ritual of scarfing down beloved New York classics like bacon, egg & cheese sandwiches (with salt, pepper & ketchup!), or bagels with thick, obscene layers of cream cheese. This diet followed me right into college where, with my newfound freedom, I ate whatever cheesy thing was available in the Morningside Heights neighborhood where I was located - and there were endless options.
It wasn't until I was in the middle of my twenties that I realized that I'd long been exhibiting gastrointestinal symptoms as a result of my cheese habit. I mean, there were signs. There had always been signs - I just refused to see them. Once during my preteen years I was at a family party hanging out with my cousins, eating ice cream and enjoying various childhood shenanigans. To my embarrassment, I accidentally let one rip, engulfing the room in an odor that had my cousins scattering away in shock. "Nivea! You're lactose intolerant! You need to stop eating all that ice cream!", my cousin yelled at me. Now, as far as I was concerned, she was no medical doctor and I'd never received such a diagnosis so she could kick rocks. There was no way in hell that I was going to give up dairy - or so I thought.
As the years went by it became obvious that dairy wasn't doing my body good. I'd long suffered from regular bouts of diarrhea and terrible gas, but it took forever to make the link to dairy. There was no way that something so delicious was doing me any harm. I refused to believe it. Throughout college I kept a Costco-sized box of Lactaid nearby to pop whenever I wanted to indulge in some cheesy goodness. This worked, but only for a while. Eventually it felt like I needed more and more of it for it to work. But it was a Costco-sized box so, I always had plenty.
Then, a couple years after I'd left college, I was eating a protein bar after a workout when I suddenly experienced itching in the back of my throat. This itchiness spread slowly throughout my body. I was having an allergic reaction. That was when I learned that I'd somehow developed an allergy to whey, a protein found in milk. Now, this did not bode well for my cheese addiction. After hitting up Google, I learned that some aged cheeses were very low in whey, so maybe I could still eat it, as long as I stuck to those few. This was a short-lived revelation, however, as my stomach problems had gotten so bad that I couldn't deny it anymore: my beloved cheese was hurting me. I had to give it up for good.
It wasn't until I began this current plant-based journey that I realized I'd been harming myself all along. I learned that because cow's milk comes from lactating cows, it is high in mammalian estrogen that our body does not distinguish from our own. It's no wonder that I suffered from debilitating menstrual periods every month. I also learned that upwards of 70-75% of people of African descent (and high percentages of other people of color) are genetically lactose intolerant. Though it took over a decade to admit it, my cousin was right after all. My body could not digest lactose, and it had been openly rejecting it since childhood.
So why was it so hard to give up? Despite countless hours spent glued to the toilet in agony, I refused to believe that dairy was the problem. After all, I'd learned growing up that dairy was a necessary food group and that I'd be deficient in calcium if I didn't consume it. Things weren't adding up. Why would the authorities that I presumed had my health in mind recommend that I consume something that was making me sick? It was also cheap as hell and readily available virtually everywhere in my neighborhood.
I eventually learned that this was not by coincidence but by design. Our government subsidizes dairy via the dairy checkoff program in order to promote the sale and consumption of dairy that is produced in excess. In the case of places like the Bronx where I grew up, cheese is easy to access for very little cost, which is why it is found in ample amounts in virtually everything - from fast food to school food to bodega food. This is despite the fact that a significant portion of those of us who live here cannot digest lactose and should not be consuming it.
Cheese was also extremely hard for me to give up because of its chemical composition. Cheese contains an opiate-like compound called casomorphin. Its natural purpose is to make a mother cow's milk enjoyable enough to the calf that it keeps coming back for more. The problem is that it makes dairy addictive to humans, as well. It also contains growth hormones which are great for growing a baby calf into a full-grown cow, but which wreak havoc in human bodies, promoting the growth of things like excess adipose tissue and tumors.
Honestly, looking back, I'm thankful for the signals that my body was giving me, even if it took way too long for me heed the warning signs. Politics, money and systemic racism are the true drivers behind the blanket recommendations to consume dairy - not science. Had I continued to listen to dietary guidelines rather than my body, I'd still be battling with the myriad symptoms that came from consuming something that my body was never meant to consume.
From acne to painful periods to other menstrual disorders and hormone-driven breast, ovarian and prostate cancers, dairy has been widely linked to health problems. Dairy broke up with me long before I was ready to let go, and honestly, I'm glad it did. I'll get my calcium from kale, thank you very much.
My name is Nivea, but you can call me Niv. Proudly hailing from the Boogie Down Bronx. I'm an NASM Certified Personal Trainer & soon to be Certified Nutrition Coach with a love of all things plant-based.