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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"You're Addicted"

Recently, I've found it hard to resist non-vegan food, particularly cheese.  Now, this is hardly unique; if the word-on-the-web is at all trustworthy -- which I'm not at all arguing that it necessarily is -- quite a few vegan types admit to missing cheese, finding it hard to pass up, and finding it the *key* stumbling block to being totally vegan.  

When I say that I've been craving it, I don't mean that I've gone all wide-eyed and prostitutional about it.  I just *miss* it and sometimes things with cheese (and to a lesser extent, eggs) look SO good.  A few days ago I was in a bakery where a Spanish tortilla was prominently displayed.  I REALLY wanted to eat it.


But I didn't.

Instead, I tweeted about it.

(When will I learn?!)

The responses I got back ranged from "you're addicted" to "remember the calf crying for its mother".  The suggestion that because I *wanted* to eat cheese was equivalent to the idea that I am *addicted* to cheese really intrigued me.  Not because I haven't heard such claims, but rather because there is quite a conceptual leap from craving something to being somehow pathologically addicted to it.

Like many medical terms with true meanings, this one has entered our popular culture and acquired a different meaning in the process.  We use it flippantly, the way we talk about active kids being "hyper" and a nervous friend being "neurotic" without really considering that kids who've been carefully evaluated for ADHD really DO stand out among their peers or that people who are truly neurotic are a tad more than just nervous.  The problem becomes when we start to believe that the "new" use of the term is as meaningful as the original.

The *medical* meaning of addiction can be found in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness, the "bible" of psychiatry).  For somebody to be labeled "addicted" (most commonly to drugs or alcohol), they must have at least three of the following seven symptoms (Addictionsandrecovery.org):

1.  Tolerance. Has use of [in this case, dairy] increased over time?
2.  Withdrawal. When you stop using, have you ever experienced physical or emotional withdrawal? Have you had any of the following symptoms: irritability, anxiety, shakes, sweats, nausea, or vomiting?
3.  Difficulty controlling your use. Do you sometimes use more or for a longer time than you would like? 
4.  Negative consequences. Have you continued to use even though there have been negative consequences to your mood, self-esteem, health, job, or family?
5.  Neglecting or postponing activities. Have you ever put off or reduced social, recreational, work, or household activities because of your use.
6.  Spending significant time or emotional energy. Have you spent a significant amount of time obtaining, using, concealing, planning, or recovering from your use? Have you spend a lot of time thinking about using? Have you ever concealed or minimized your use? Have you ever thought of schemes to avoid getting caught?
7.  Desire to cut down. Have you sometimes thought about cutting down or controlling your use? Have you ever made unsuccessful attempts to cut down or control your use?

I would answer "no" to all these questions, though I spent some time thinking how writing a blog about not being addicted might somehow fall under symptom number six.  Yeah, I get the irony.  I do.

But I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say that at least according to the accepted medical criteria for "addiction,"  I do not qualify as being addicted to dairy.

What is interesting is *why* dairy has become something that, to some people, falls into the same maligned category as cigarettes, alcohol or drugs.

If I had said, for instance, that what I really craved was Tofurkey, nobody would have given me a lecture on the opiate response in the brain to tofu (though, if somebody REALLY loves something, their brain reacts in ways so pleasant that they want to repeat the experience...it *could* lead to "addiction," at least as the term is popularly used).  I'll discuss that in a minute.

In part, nobody would have given me a bad time about "craving" Tofurkey because *nobody really objects ethically to tofu*.  Cow's milk is offensive to some for primarily three reasons, which I've written about before.  To recap the highlights: it's from another species (why are humans drinking something designed for calves); it represents human use of animals which is ethically offensive; producing milk involves pain to the animals (both the cows through constant insemination in order to keep them lactating and to the calves who are removed from their mothers so that people can drink the milk).

People generally do not get criticized for being addicted to something unless their "addiction" somehow offends.   For example, cigarettes pollute the air for all of us and are considered a leading cause of lung cancer, so we tend to feel comfortable telling people they are addicted:  it'd be better for them AND US if they didn't smoke.  We also hear people say that they or their friends are "addicted to exercise," but we generally don't say this until we see that their commitment to (the noble goal of) exercise interferes with their relationships or becomes symptomatic of an eating disorder.

People who might think I'm "addicted" to dairy already have a problem with dairy.  Their claim about dairy addiction tells me more about their opinions  of dairy than it tells me (or them) about my actual patterns of dairy consumption or the behavior that I theoretically demonstrate when I cannot get some.

The strongest reason to give somebody in order to convince them NOT to consume dairy is the ethical one:  dairy involves true, verifiable pain to sentient animals.

One of the weakest reasons to give somebody in an attempt to convince them not to consume dairy is that dairy is addictive.  Using that reasoning, however, does highlight how accusing somebody of addiction is a form of socially acceptable shaming.  Theoretically, a person who learns they are addicted should be ashamed and want to change.

Brains produce endorphins when we exercise, when we laugh, when we have sex, when we eat chocolate.  Brains also release endorphins when we meditate.  In case you're wondering what endorphins "do":  they activate parts of the brain called opiate receptors.  In other words, endorphins make you feel good.

That last part is important; people who want to tell you you are addicted to something like to play the "opiate" card.  It sounds scary:  could eating cheese be as bad, for instance, as being hooked on a drug?  Could it be as *shameful*?

I've now heard many vegans claim that dairy is addictive, that it activates opiate receptors (which would be roughly equivalent, I think, to those receptors being activated via a good laugh or some good sex).  Curiously, when I googled "dairy addiction," I found lots of sites with this claim (but with no empirical data from trusted medical sources).  Both WebMD and JAMA had NO cites for any refereed journal articles on "milk addiction."  When I asked two doctor friends at church about the extension of the idea of addiction to dairy, they both laughed.  "There is a difference," they both said, "between really LIKING something and being addicted to it."

I found only ONE site that took the time to tease apart this claim and look at where it originated.

Guess what?  There is NO empirical evidence that dairy is proven to be addictive.  It *is* LOVED, culturally normative, widely consumed.  It *is* common from people to crave the very foods that affect them negatively (if you've ever tried to wean yourself from caffeine, you know what I mean).  It *is* also a common allergy and can contribute to health problems, particularly in sensitive people.

I'm not arguing that people should eat dairy, just that I'm not buying the don't-go-near-it-it's-addicting argument.   That isn't to say you cannot crave it, or obsess about it, or want it.  But craving and obsessing and wanting are distinct from being addicted.

I occasionally really want to eat cheese and eggs.  On occasion, I even do, in small quantities and usually when I'm not at home.

But I am NOT addicted.


  1. Wow. I didn't get this from the Twitter interaction at all.

    What I heard, and what I responded to was "I don't want to do this, what should I do."

    I may have misread, but I thought the comments @ you were trying to be supportive.

    You make it sound here like there was a near pile up on you.

    I thought it was an interesting conversation, which is why I joined in.

    If you want to eat cheese, eggs, or whatever, please do so. I am not one to censor one's behavior: I tried to offer a couple of ideas based on my journey.

    I consider these this explorations, not dogmas.

    I think the milk thing is particularly interesting, and why I (MISTAKENLY, WHEN WILL I LEARN) chirped in because even as a child I was completely milk dependent .... having a strange and *very* unusually personal history, which I am not going to parade here, but trust me, it's pretty off the charts, there were times when I didn't eat anything, nada, but would drink milk.

    Lots of it.

    As I mentioned on Twitter, both sides of my family suffer from addiction issues, and my own history has followed suite: my brain chemistry is asthmatic.

    For myself, I find this milk produces opiates argument interesting, and certainly resonates with themes and variations in my life: self-medicating through all kinds of ways, getting the brain to produce various chemicals through this behavior or that behavior.

    If milk is an opiate producer, I can certainly see how that fits into my personal history.

    Sorry, I didn't hear anyone say that you were "addicted."

    It's both a data and experience thing.

    Sorry you took it so personally.

    I think cravings are often linked to stress and other factors, and the body does "self-medicate."

    That was the only point in my comments. I was also trying to empathize with that fact, that it's a natural reaction.

    If anything, this is another needed lesson in people reading things in entirely the wrong and most negative, judgmental way possible.

    No judgment on my end. You've expressed interest in vegan living, posted a struggle, and people offered advice and recommendations.

    That was my take. I could be mistaken.


  2. Um...this post wasn't directed at you. Several people had sent me the addiction suggestion; it prompted my thinking about the extension of the term into areas in which it doesn't particularly belong. That's all.

  3. We had tweeted about the addiction thing .... an understandable mistake.

    Thanks for clarifying. Always think that the status quo should be questioned, no matter who it comes from.

  4. Good post. On twitter, I answered with a recipe for a vegan spanish omelette. Hope you got my tweet!

  5. I did get your recipe! Thanks so much! Plan to try it soon.

  6. Thought-provoking, well written and honest – I wouldn't expect anything less Elaine! Temptations are real – we can't be expected to make the best moral choice in every scenario for the rest of our lives. Who would sign up to explore veganism if that was the case? Most vegans I've encountered are "almost vegans" and it's a matter of how much people admit and too often it's 'do as I say, not as I do.'

    I too struggle to give up cheese – I just don't find the vegan alternatives (even Daiya) very good. I've stopped considering it "slipping," "falling off the wagon," "cheating" or the like. I eat it when I feel like, and don't apologize to the perfectionists.


Politeness is always appreciated.