Good News About Cheese: It’s Much Healthier Than You Thought

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The cheese is rich and creamy, and is irresistible on a cracker, paired with a selection of fresh fruit, or sprinkled over a bowl of chili. Americans really love it. Per capita consumption is 40 pounds a year, or just over 1.5 ounces a day.

But when people talk about their love of cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, as if to say, “Cheese is my weakness.”

“Cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium, and phosphorous, and it can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” says Lisa Young, associate professor of nutrition at New York University. Research shows that even full-fat cheese won’t necessarily make you gain weight or give you a heart attack. It appears that cheese does not increase or reduce the risk of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and some studies show that it might even be protective.

Good bacteria, lower risk of saturated fat

It’s easy to see why people might feel conflicted about cheese. For years, the US Dietary Guidelines have said that eating low-fat dairy is best because full-fat dairy, like full-fat cheese, has saturated fat, which can raise LDL cholesterol levels ( bad), a known risk of heart disease. Cheese has also been blamed for weight gain and digestive problems like bloating. However, it turns out that the cheese may have been misinterpreted.

Yes, it’s high in calories: some types have 100 calories or more per ounce. And it is rich in saturated fat. So why is it okay for most people to eat it? “There’s more to cheese than its saturated fat content,” says Emma Feeney, an assistant professor at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health who studies the effect cheese has on health.

Old-school thinking on nutrition has focused on individual nutrients, such as fats or proteins, that promote or prevent disease. It’s not clear that this is the wrong approach, but nutrition experts 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 nutrients and other components are chemically organized. This has an effect on how the body digests and processes it, which can lead to health effects that are different from the effects of eating the same nutrients in another form, such as butter.

In 2018, Feeney led a six-week clinical trial in which 164 people ate the same amount of dairy fat in the form of butter or cheese, then switched midway through the study. “We found that the saturated fat in cheese didn’t raise LDL cholesterol levels to the same extent that butter did,” she says.

Experts have different theories about why the saturated fat in cheese is less harmful. “Some studies show that the mineral content in cheese, particularly calcium, can bind to fatty acids in the intestine and remove them from the body,” says Feeney. Other studies suggest that fatty acids called sphingolipids in cheese may increase the activity of genes that help with the breakdown of cholesterol in the body.

When cheese is made, it also takes on some beneficial compounds. “Vitamin K can be formed during the fermentation process,” says Sarah Booth, director of the Vitamin K Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. The vitamin is 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 may be beneficial to human gut microbiota,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Found primarily in aged cheeses like cheddar and gouda, this good bacteria helps break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from taking hold, and boost immunity.

Weight gain, misunderstandings about lactose

Cheese also appears to reduce the risk of weight gain and several chronic diseases.

Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. But studies suggest that you don’t need to skip cheese to keep the scale stable. In one, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine which foods were linked to weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, noting their weight every four years. Cheese was not associated with gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount they ate during the study.

One of the reasons that 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 looking at the effect of cheese on cardiovascular disease found that people who ate the most (1.5 ounces per day) had a 10% lower risk than those who ate nothing . Other analyzes have found that cheese does not appear to affect heart disease risk in any way.

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 low-fat full-fat dairy was associated with a 24 percent and 11 percent reduced risk of both conditions compared to eating none. Eating only low-fat dairy products slightly increased the risk. And among people who did not have diabetes or high blood pressure at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy products a day were less likely to develop the diseases during the study.

Lactose intolerance: Lactose, a sugar in milk, can be difficult for some people to digest, leading to 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. Much of the lactose that remains is found in the whey, which separates from the curds towards the end of the cheese-making process and runs off. If you’re lactose sensitive, stick with hard or aged cheeses like cheddar, provolone, parmesan, blue, camembert, and gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheeses like ricotta and cottage cheese.

While cheese itself doesn’t appear to have negative health effects, how you incorporate it into your overall diet matters.

In much of the research suggesting a neutral or beneficial effect, the highest amount of cheese people ate each day, on average, was around 1.5 ounces, but in some cases it was up to 3 ounces. (An ounce of cheese is about the size of your extended thumb.)

In some studies, the health benefits of cheese were found to be greatest when it replaced a less healthy food like red or processed meat. So there’s a big difference between crumbling some blue cheese on top of a salad and serving up a double cheese pepperoni pizza. “Incorporating cheese into a Mediterranean-style diet that also includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods known to reduce disease risk will do the most good for your overall health,” says Young.

For those who watch their sodium intake, cheese can be quite salty. (The salt acts as a preservative.) If you’re eating about an ounce a day, it’s not a big concern. Most types give you between 150 and 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (The daily value does not exceed 2300 mg). However, if you eat more, sodium can add up.

The shape the cheese takes can also influence how it affects your health. “Many of the cheese and health studies use unmelted cheese,” says Feeney. “We don’t yet know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, for example, eating cheese on pizza or in cooked dishes like casseroles.”

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