President's Blog: The Science of a Vegan Cheesecake Love-Affair

President's Blog: The Science of a Vegan Cheesecake Love-Affair

Before becoming vegan, I loved everything about traditional cheesecake - all except weight gain! That was until one cold, windy New Year’s Eve, twenty-five years ago, attending a party in Venice Beach, California, I had a fleeting, yet significant epiphany. Inside a beautiful indoor/outdoor complex of three connected cottages, I watched wintry winds blowing, bullying Chinese lanterns that bobbed with splashes of moving lights, lighting up its entryway and casting kinetic red hues upon arriving guests.

Huddling inside, I watched as guests arrived. My attention was fixed on a young female with long hair, teetering on the cobblestones beneath her heels, carefully cradling a luscious-looking cheesecake in a massive baking dish. Little did I know that fateful dessert would change the course of my life!

Like a panther ready to pounce, I observed her route and movements, elbowing past drunken throngs of party revelers. One half-naked man swathed in a white huge diaper sheet, donning a metallic blue hat with 1995 in sequins, grabbed my forearm, swinging us around for a free-form dancing sprint.

Determined and laser-focused, I was determined to break away and track down the dessert’s exact location. Hiding far from the dessert bar, I found a luminous white virgin territory of voluminous cheesecake mass. I carved out an oversized slice, gobbling it down sheepishly yet undeterred, swallowing and inhaling all its deliciousness.

Almost breathless, I begged the heaven-sent cook for the cake’s name. I was more than a little surprised to find out it was a vegan cheesecake. Not knowing the word “vegan,” the kindly baker defined the term as I wrote down its ingredients - silken tofu, cashews, bananas - but no cheese!

Breathing easier, I imagined future feeding frenzies of low-calorie cheesecake episodes, diminished by guilt and without an aftermath of craving for more fat and sugar that are so emblematic of traditional cheesecake. I was also excited to have found a healthy alternative to binging and gaining weight cycles.

The following day, I could not for the life of me find the scrap of receipt I had scribbled the recipe onto. Without the internet, it seemed lost forever. My longing eventually dissipated, until several decades later.

Flash-forward several years to my wannabe-vegan episode, punctuated by a bland routine diet of tofu, beans, and rice. Without much cooking expertise, I looked gaunt, picking at the chickpeas on my plate. Dying for a cheeseburger, but homebound since I was avoiding traveling outside to the supermarket, I prayed for a solution. Out of nowhere, wishing to break free of this self-imposed prison, an image of that vegan cheesecake popped into my mind from twenty-five years ago - its sublime taste, silky texture, and blueberry glaze!

Leaping to action, scouring the internet, I found recipes for many vegan cheesecakes; tingling all over with a blissful anticipation, I squealed a confirmatory, “yes!” Grabbing the car keys, shooting out of the front door, I burst into the supermarket to purchase the ingredients. That night, baking just one and a half hours, I had a glorious raspberry lime rickey vegan cheesecake. A first! A life-changing moment!

Why switch to vegan cheesecake from traditional cheesecake?

Cheese hijacks the brain’s reward center, triggering cravings similar to abusers withdrawing from either cocaine or heroin. Traditional cheesecake, loaded with dairy and saturated fat, hijacks the brain’s reward system, similar to substances of abuse such as cocaine and heroin. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter signals the presence of rewarding stimuli and changes brain structure.

Nora Volkow, MD, Director of National Institute on Drug Abuse, used PET scans and radioactive chemicals to discover that obese people have fewer dopamine receptors in their brain reward center. These people need to eat more in order to experience the same level of reward feelings as average-weighted individuals.

Repeated over-consumption of traditional cheesecake leads dopamine surges to downregulate, lowering the number of dopamine receptors in the brain; this is the beginning of addiction. Larger and larger volumes of dopamine are then needed to elicit the previous reward level of sensation. This launches a vicious cycle with urges to increase ingestion of cheesecake, leading to further downregulating of receptor sites, thus increasing the hunger level to one of insatiability.

Exposure to meat, traditional cheesecake and other drugs results in a tidal wave of dopamine and cravings for more.

Traditional cheesecake actually changes the brain in the same way as cocaine, through an addictive cycling of anticipation and reward. Yale University researchers used FMRI studies to prove both lean and obese women who demonstrate addictive behavior with food show the same neural patterns seen in the chronic drug user - a higher level of anticipation for the drug or food but lower satisfaction levels after its consumption. In other words, the food-addicted brain pattern is the same as a chronic drug abuser.

Vegan cheesecake turns on pleasure, but without the cheese cravings! Choosing vegan cheesecake over traditional cheesecake decreases our risk of developing diabetes, stroke, cancer, and coronary heart disease. You’ll be lessening animal suffering and cutting harmful environmental impacts too. So even when initial gratification has been long forgotten, you’ll still feel good!

Now you understand how cheesecake and other everyday foods can trigger addiction, we invite you to overcome addiction to traditional cheesecake and all other unhealthy animal products. Sign up now to join or start a Carnivores Anonymous meeting near you.