The Cheese (Ch)Eater

Last updated: March 2022

I love cheese. I love it so much. And I can taste it right now as I write this: a rich and delicious soft saltiness, melting in my mouth. Of course, I love cheese - I'm Italian! Mozzarella is my middle name (it's Christine, but close enough).

This, and a million other reasons (a million words for "delicious" maybe?) is what makes giving up this beautiful dairy product so difficult. What am I supposed to eat on my crackers? Or drench my nachos in? What about sinfully tasty late-night cheeseburgers or some fancy chevre on a warm baguette? What about pizza?!

Vegan cheese doesn't quite cut it, but apparently, it's my only option now as I struggle to follow a dairy-free (and vegan) diet in order to help my rheumatoid arthritis (RA). If only the cure for RA were cheese...wouldn't that be wonderful? Sadly, it's not.

Removing cheese from my diet

In good news, I'm officially on Day 8 of no cheese (or dairy) cheating! I can't believe that I've lasted this long, especially when last night I had to practically sit on my hands to stop myself from opening the fridge and stuffing slices of delectable swiss into my mouth.

It was a big and tantalizing struggle but I managed to control myself. Is it worth the struggle and sacrifice, though? Is it helping? I think so. After a week of no dairy, the swelling in my feet and ankles seems to be down somewhat. As an added bonus, my GI issues are also better (acid reflux, heartburn, general upset).

Diet to control RA inflammation

Many people with RA and chronic inflammation are now following dairy-free and other diets with the hope of improving their disease: gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan, autoimmune protocol (AIP), and paleo, to name a few.

So what's the truth about these diets? Which works best? Unfortunately, because each person is different, there is no definitive answer to this question. The diet and the disease vary from person to person, making the nutrition world a bit complicated to navigate.

Through research and anecdotal evidence, though, it's becoming common knowledge that RA patients fare better eating plant-based foods and/or following a Mediterranean diet rather than dairy and meat. Doing an elimination diet with the help of a doctor or nutritionist is a good way to see if different foods affect you and your RA.

Avoiding dairy, eggs, meat, and fish

Let's get back to my diet, or my attempts at following an "RA diet." My goal, and what I should be doing, is eating vegan, which is a diet devoid of animal products: dairy, eggs, meat (fish, too). I say "attempts" because despite seeing real and substantial results when being strictly vegan for just a week, it's very hard to stick to it.

Embarrassingly, I'm a cheater. Especially a cheese cheater. Giving up meat hasn't been too difficult to get used to, nor has switching from cow's milk to non-dairy substitutes (almond, soy, oat, coconut). It's the cheese that keeps getting me! If I'm making a veggie sandwich, I'm always tempted to add cheese to give it an extra little "oomph." It also seems almost sacrilegious to eat pizza without real mozzarella melting mouthwateringly atop it.

The other main problem I have with trying to be vegan is eggs. I love eggs maybe almost as much as I love cheese. I love their versatility and how easy they are to make. The fact that they're packed with protein is great, too, which is crucial when you're not eating meat. Similar to my feelings on cheese, trying to abstain from eggs seriously tests my fragile willpower; I'm an egg cheater, too. I really need to try harder to stop giving into temptations and cheating on my diet.

I know and I've seen with my own eyes how eating strictly vegan makes the swelling and inflammation go down in my body. The first time I gave up animal products for a week, I was shocked to see my feet and ankles looking amazingly "normal." The swelling and puffiness had shrunk way down, even my "bad" ankle on which I had two unsuccessful surgeries. I'm pretty sure I even spotted an ankle bone or two! Exciting!

Dietary changes as part of a new lifestyle

Aren't positive, tangible results enough to make me stick to my diet and stop the cheating? Yes, it absolutely is. But, when I say it's hard to do, it's really hard. Hugely hard. I love food and I have food habits and issues and hangups that go back many years to when I was a child.

Despite these obstacles, I know that changing nutrition habits and having them become part of my lifestyle, rather than just a temporary "diet," is important in managing my health and RA.

I miss and long for my beloved friend, cheese. But do I miss agonizing and disabling RA flare-ups that compromise my quality of life? No, never. And because of this, I will be hitting up a brilliant vegan "butcher shop" in Northeast Minneapolis soon, The Herbivorous Butcher, to hopefully satisfy those cheese cravings and keep me from ransacking the cheese drawer at night.

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