But when people talk about their love of cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, as in, “Cheese is my weakness.”
“Cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium and phosphorus, and can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” says Lisa Young, adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University. Research shows that even full-fat cheese doesn’t necessarily make you gain weight or give you a heart attack. Cheese does not appear to increase or decrease your risk for chronic diseases, such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, and some studies suggest it may be protective.
Good bacteria, reduce the risk of saturated fat
It’s easy to see why people might feel conflicted about cheese. For years, US dietary guidelines have said eating low-fat dairy is best because whole milk products, such as full-fat cheese, have saturated fat, which can raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, known to be at risk for heart disease. Cheese has also been blamed for weight gain and digestive problems such as bloating. Turns out, the cheese may have been misunderstood.
Yes, they’re high in calories: Some varieties have 100 calories or more per ounce. And it’s rich in saturated fat. So why is it okay for most people to eat it? “Cheese is about more than its saturated fat content,” says Emma Feeney, assistant professor at the Institute of Food and Health at University College Dublin who studies the effects of cheese on health.
Old thinking about nutrition has focused on individual nutrients – such as fat or protein – that either promote or prevent disease. It is not clear that this is the wrong approach, but nutritionists are now placing more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes and other components interact with each other.
When milk is turned into cheese, the process changes the way the nutrients and other components in it are chemically arranged. This has an effect on how it is digested and processed by the body, which can lead to different health effects than the effects of eating the same nutrient in other forms, such as butter.
In 2018, Feeney led a six-week clinical trial in which 164 people each ate the same amount of dairy fat in either the form of butter or cheese and then switched halfway through the study. “We found that the saturated fat in cheese did not raise LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent as butter,” he said.
Experts have various theories about why the saturated fat in cheese is less harmful. “Some studies show that the mineral content in cheese, especially calcium, may bind with fatty acids in the gut and flush them out of the body,” says Feeney. Other studies suggest that fatty acids called sphingolipids in cheese may increase the activity of genes that help the body break down cholesterol.
When cheese is made, it also gets some beneficial compounds. “Vitamin K can be formed during the fermentation process,” says Sarah Booth, director of the Vitamin K Laboratory at the USDA’s Jean Mayer Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. Vitamins are important for blood clotting, and the health of bones and blood vessels.
And as a fermented food, “both raw and pasteurized cheeses contain good bacteria that can benefit the human gut microbiota,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory compliance for Wisconsin Dairy Farmers. These good bacteria, mostly found in aged cheeses like cheddar and Gouda, help break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from gaining a foothold, and boost immunity.
Weight gain, lactose misunderstanding
Cheese also appears to reduce the risk of weight gain and some chronic diseases.
Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. But studies suggest that you don’t need to skip the cheese to keep the scale stable. In one, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine the foods associated with weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, looking at their weight every four years. Cheese was not associated with either gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount they ate during the study.
One of the reasons cheese can help with weight control is that it can reduce appetite more than other dairy products.
Cardiovascular disease: A large meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition that looked at the effect of cheese on cardiovascular disease found that people who ate the most (1.5 ounces a day) had a 10 percent lower risk than those who ate none. Another analysis found that cheese doesn’t seem to affect the risk of heart disease either.
Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy also appear to be associated with a lower risk of both. In a study of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, researchers found that eating two daily servings of full-fat dairy or a mix of full-fat and low-fat dairy was associated with a 24 and 11 percent reduced risk of both conditions compared to not eating it. Eating only low-fat dairy slightly increases the risk. And among people who did not have diabetes or hypertension at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy per day were less likely to develop the disease during the study.
Lactose intolerance: Lactose, the sugar in milk, may be difficult for some people to digest, causing diarrhea, bloating and other gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria used to make cheese digest most of the lactose in milk, says Jamie Png of the American Cheese Society. Most of the remaining lactose is found in the whey, which is separated from the curds towards the end of the cheese-making process and dried. If you are sensitive to lactose, stick to hard or aged cheeses such as cheddar, provolone, Parmesan, blue, Camembert and Gouda, and cut back on fresh soft cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese.
While cheese itself doesn’t seem to have any negative health effects, how you incorporate it into your overall diet is important.
In most of the research that suggested a neutral or beneficial effect, the highest amount of cheese people ate per day, on average, was about 1.5 ounces, but in some cases it was up to 3 ounces. (An ounce of cheese is about the size of your outstretched thumb.)
In some studies, the health benefits of cheese have been found to be greatest when it replaces less healthy foods such as red or processed meat. So there’s a big difference between smashing some blue cheese over a salad and serving a pepperoni pizza with double the cheese. “Incorporating cheese into a Mediterranean-style diet where you also include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods known to reduce disease risk will be the most beneficial for your overall health,” says Young.
For those watching their sodium intake, cheese can be quite salty. (Salt acts as a preservative.) If you’re eating about an ounce a day, it’s not a big concern. Most varieties give you between 150 and 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (The daily value is no more than 2,300 mg.) Eat more, though, and sodium can add up.
The form of cheese taken can also affect how it affects health. “Many of the studies on cheese and health use cheese in its undiluted form,” says Feeney. “We still don’t know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, for example, eating cheese on a pizza or in a cooked dish like a casserole.”
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