Is Cheese Good for You?

Cheddar, Gouda, Brie, Gorgonzola, Parmesan. There’s a tempting kind for every taste, and recent research shows they can all be part of a healthy diet.

By Stephanie Clarke

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

However, as much as we love cheese, we are a little afraid of it. When people talk about their fondness for cheese, they often do so in a guilty, confessional way, like “Cheese is my weakness.”

But “cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium, and phosphorus, and it can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” says Lisa Young, RD, associate professor of nutrition at New York University. So if Stilton makes you swoon or if you always want more Parm in your pasta, know this: 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.

Why cheese can be good for you

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 products is better because whole milk products, like full-fat cheese, have saturated fat, which can raise levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol, a known risk for heart disease. Cheese has also been blamed for weight gain and digestive problems as swelling. However, it turns out that the cheese may have been misunderstood.

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? “Cheese is about more than its saturated fat content,” says Emma Feeney, PhD, an assistant professor at University College Dublin’s Institute of Food and Health who studies the effect cheese has on health.

Old-school thinking about nutrition has focused on individual nutrients, such as fats or protein—promoting or preventing disease. It’s not entirely clear that this is the wrong approach, but nutrition experts are now putting more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes, and other components interact with each other.

When milk is made into cheese, the process changes the way nutrients and other components are chemically organized. (See “How Cheese is Made” below.) 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 nutrient in another form, such as butter. .

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In 2018, Feeney directed a six-week show clinical trial in which 164 people ate the same amount of milk fat in the form of butter or cheese and 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, some beneficial compounds are also obtained. “vitamin K they can form during the fermentation process,” says Sarah Booth, PhD, 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. “Cheese with higher fat content, like cheddar or blue, have the most.”

And as a fermented food, “both raw and pasteurized cheeses contain good bacteria that may be beneficial to the human gut microbiota,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and regulatory compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. (Watch “Is it safe to eat raw milk cheese?”) This good bacteria, found primarily in aged cheeses like cheddar and gouda, helps break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from taking hold, and support immunity.

your body in cheese

So cheese might not be a cholesterol concern, it offers important nutrients and can promote gut health. But wait, there’s more good news: Cheese appears to reduce the risk of weight gain (really) and several chronic diseases.

Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. “That’s why cheese servings need to be smaller compared to something like milk or yogurt,” says New York University’s Young. Still, studies suggest that you don’t need to skip cheese to keep the scales stable. In one, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, the researchers set out to determine which foods were linked to weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the US for 20 years, noting their weight every four years. While they found that consuming more of certain foods, such as refined grains (as in white bread), was associated with weight gain, eating more of others, such as nuts, actually helped with weight loss. Cheese was not associated with gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount they ate during the study. Another review published in the magazine Molecular Nutrition and Food Research in 2018 found that people who ate dairy, including cheese, weighed more than those who didn’t, but those who ate dairy had less body fat and more lean body mass, which is beneficial for health.

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One of the reasons cheese can help with weight management is that it can reduce appetite more than other dairy products. in a small to study, the researchers measured the appetite and levels of four hormones that control hunger in the blood of 31 people after they ate cheese, sour cream, whipped cream or butter. Among those foods, cheese caused a greater increase in two of the hormones that help you feel full.

Cardiovascular disease: A large meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition that looked at the impact of cheese on cardiovascular disease found that people who ate the most (1.5 ounces per day) had a 10 percent lower risk than those who ate nothing. Other analyzes have found that cheese does not appear to affect heart disease risk in any way. While many of these studies are observational, meaning they don’t show cause and effect, taken together “the research suggests you don’t need to avoid cheese if you’re concerned about LDL cholesterol levels or heart disease,” says Feeney.

Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy products also appear to be associated with a lower risk of both. in a to study of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, researchers found that eating two servings of full-fat dairy or a mix of full-fat and low-fat dairy was linked to a 24 percent and 11 percent lower risk of both conditions compared with not eating any. Eating only low-fat dairy products slightly increased the risk. And among people who didn’t have diabetes or high blood pressure at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy 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 and a 12-year veteran of the cheese-making industry. Much of the lactose that remains is found in the whey, which is separated from the curds towards the end of the cheesemaking process and drained off. “This means that many types of cheese have very little or no lactose,” she says. “I’m a lactose intolerant cheesemaker, and my rule of thumb is that the higher the moisture in a cheese, the higher the lactose content.” If you’re sensitive to lactose, stick with hard and/or aged cheese like cheddar, provolone, Parmesan, blue, camembert, and gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheese like ricotta and cottage cheese. For example, an ounce of cheddar cheese has about 0.01 grams of lactose, while a half cup of cottage cheese has 3.2 grams. (A cup of whole milk has 12 grams.)

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The healthiest way to eat cheese

If all this news has you ready to dig out a wheel of Brie with a spoon, wait. Although cheese itself doesn’t seem to have negative health effects, how you incorporate it into your overall diet is important.

In much of the research suggesting a neutral or beneficial effect, the highest amount of cheese people ate was about 1.5 ounces, but in some cases it was as high as 3 ounces. (An ounce of cheese is about the size of your outstretched thumb.)

In some studies, the health benefits of cheese were found to be greater when it replaced a less healthy food such as red cheese or processed meats. 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 be the most beneficial for your overall health,” says Young.

For those who watch your 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 much of a concern. Most types give you between 150 and 300 mg of sodium per ounce. (The daily value does not exceed 2300 mg). However, if you eat more, the sodium can add up.

The form the cheese takes can also influence how it affects your health. “A lot of the studies on cheese and health use raw 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.”

Young suggests pairing the cheese with fresh fruit, nuts, or vegetables like carrots and red bell peppers, and some whole-grain crackers, or eating it on a slice of Whole toast topped with tomato. When the cheese has a leading role, you can focus on it and enjoy it more.

Publisher’s note: This article also appeared in the November 2022 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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