When we turn our attention to having healthier habits and eating better, many of us think we have to cut out all of the delicious foods that we love to snack on.
Cheese, inevitably, tends to be high on the list.
But is cheese unhealthy or has it just been given bad PR?
Could cheese even be good for us?
Let’s dig into the science and find out …
TL;DR: Is Cheese Unhealthy?
Cheese is neither good nor bad for you. It’s packed with good things like calcium and protein, but it’s also high in calories, fat, and sodium. The key is considering your own dietary needs, finding a balance, and moderation.
- Cheese does not appear to be significantly associated with markers of heart disease like LDL-cholesterol, triglycerides, or CRP, regardless of its fat content.
- Cheese has a neutral effect on the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
- With the possible exception of prostate cancer, cheese does not increase cancer risk.
- Cheese is typically not associated with inflammation markers, though high cheese intake is common in people with Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and acne
So what is the answer? Is cheese unhealthy?
While it is not bad per se, it’s best to limit your cheese intake to 1-2 servings (50-80g) per day. In your cheese choices, consider the sodium, calcium, calorie, and protein content.
Health Benefits of Cheese
It turns out, there are some significant health benefits to eating cheese.
- Cheese is a rich source of calcium, fat, protein, vitamins A and B12, zinc, phosphorus, and riboflavin.
- Grass-fed cheese, derived from 100% grass-fed animals, may offer a healthier balance of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids which are crucial for heart and metabolic health.
- Cheese, along with other dairy products, could help protect teeth from cavities. In a study, children with above-average dairy intake were more likely to be cavity-free than those with a below-average intake.
- High-fat cheeses like blue cheese, Brie, and cheddar contain small amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a healthy fat that might help prevent obesity, and heart disease, or even reduce inflammation.
- According to research, fermented dairy products, including yogurt and cheese, can positively impact cardiovascular health.
- The whey separated during cheese production is a high-quality protein source, packed with essential amino acids, and often used in protein supplements.
- Hard cheeses are low in carbohydrates, making them suitable for low-carb diets.
Cheese Health Tips
Here are some tips to help get the most out of your cheese habit without losing control.
- Cheese provides calcium and protein but also contains high levels of salt and fat and the levels of each can vary significantly. Shop around.
- Cooking from scratch can help control cheese intake as processed foods often contain higher-fat cheeses.
- Reduced-fat cheese does not necessarily mean low flavor! That said, ‘Reduced fat’ indicates 25% less fat than the original, not necessarily low fat, and may not contain as much Vitamin D as full-fat cheese.
- Wanting to control your cheese consumption? Skip the grated cheese on spaghetti bolognese, it adds extra calories, saturated fat, and salt. Using a smaller serving of a vintage or mature cheddar can provide the desired cheese flavor while avoiding excess calories. Grating your cheese may lead to using less cheese than pre-cut slices.
Types of Cheese
There are thousands of cheese varieties made globally. Although many American-made cheeses use cow’s milk, cheese can also be derived from goat’s, sheep’s, and other animals’ milk.
Whole milk cheeses are made from unskimmed milk. They can be high in saturated fat, so individuals with cardiovascular disease or high cholesterol might prefer to limit their consumption.
In the United States, cheeses labeled as “low-fat” must contain 3 grams or less of fat per serving. Lower-fat cheeses like mozzarella, feta, and cottage cheese provide less saturated fat. Goat cheese contains similar levels of fat and salt to brie and edam but Goat cheese’s lactose content is similar to other semi-soft cheeses.
Aged cheeses like cheddar, Parmesan, and Swiss are firm in texture and can be high in salt. They are stored before they are ready to be sold, allowing them to mature, which tends to enhance their flavors. Hard cheeses like Parmesan, Cheddar, and Gorgonzola are typically aged longer than soft cheeses, which intensifies their flavors and makes them great for adding depth to dishes.
Fresh cheeses such as ricotta and cottage cheese are typically high in moisture and soft in texture. They don’t require aging and are ready to be consumed promptly, hence known as “fresh” cheeses.
Cream cheese is a soft, fresh cheese that’s high in fat and offers a smooth texture, which can be used in both sweet and savory dishes.
Gorgonzola, a type of blue cheese, is high in calcium and phosphorus, contributing to good bone health. Its strong flavor means you can use less, which helps control calorie and fat intake.
When is Cheese Not Cheese?
Surprisingly, some products commonly referred to as cheese aren’t actually cheese at all.
Highly processed cheese products like American cheese are made by blending cheese with other cheeses or dairy products. Additional ingredients might be added to improve flavor, texture, or shelf life.
While they contain cheese, they are technically “pasteurized process cheese food.” Processed options usually contain higher sodium levels than other cheeses.
Other not-cheese-cheese are non-dairy cheeses that are made from plant-based ingredients like nuts, soy, and coconut.
People joke about being addicted to cheese, but it might be a real thing. The average consumption of cheese per person in America has increased from 6 pounds annually during the mid-1970s to 11 pounds as of 2018.
The rise in cheese consumption can be attributed to a variety of factors, including changing social and economic elements. Cheese is often a focal point at social events, and the art of cheesemaking has grown in popularity.
Why is cheese so addicting? It could be its salty flavor or habitual consumption, but it turns out cheese may have mildly addictive properties due to casein, a slowly digested protein found in dairy products.
Casein releases opiates called casomorphins when digested. Casomorphins can cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward.
Cheese’s high-fat content may also trigger cravings, stimulated by the brain’s reward system, and the release of endorphins after eating can reinforce the desire for more. There could be an evolutionary component to this, as high-fat foods were likely a survival mechanism for prehistoric humans. This might explain why low-fat, low-calorie foods like fruits and vegetables are generally less likely to trigger cravings compared to processed, high-fat foods.
In summary, cheese contains casein that releases casomorphins and contains far, both of which can trigger dopamine production in the brain, thus making cheese mildly addictive.
Cheese and Special Dietary Considerations
As always, if you have any special dietary considerations, it is worth doing extra research. In general, however, if you have, say, high cholesterol or blood pressure you don’t necessarily need to eliminate cheese from your diet. Moderation is key.
Be careful serving soft cheeses and blue-veined cheeses to vulnerable people, pregnant people, younger children, older adults, and people with immune deficiencies. They may sometimes become contaminated with listeria, especially if made with unpasteurized or “raw” milk. Consuming listeria-contaminated foods can cause illness in the healthiest of people. In this category are brie, camembert, queso fresco, queso blanco, queso panela, and feta.
Famously, cheese is not great for people with lactose intolerance or a milk allergy. Lactose intolerance is an inability to digest lactose, a sugar found in cheese. Symptoms of intolerance can include gas, bloating, and diarrhea. That said, aged cheeses like Parmesan, Swiss, and cheddar are lower in lactose and may be tolerable in small amounts even for people with lactose intolerance.
A milk allergy can be life-threatening, so take it seriously. Although called milk allergy, it is actually an immune reaction to proteins found in milk, such as casein. Those with a milk allergy cannot consume cheese or other dairy products and can appear early in life, before age 1.
If you are considering decreasing or replacing your cheese consumption, a popular option that does not contain casein are the nondairy cheese substitutes. These alternatives are suitable for vegan diets and are lactose-free.
Many cheese substitutes are made from nuts (so be careful if you have allergies) or plant-based thickeners such as coconut. Although coconut-based cheeses are popular, they are highly processed and less nutritious.
Nutritional yeast is another alternative that can be used in soups, salads, and pasta.
A 2021 study from Spain suggested opting for cashew and tofu-based products when choosing store-bought vegan cheeses.
Cheese Nutritional Data
Cheese nutrition profiles can significantly differ.
For instance, per ounce, mozzarella contains 85 calories and 6.3 grams of fat. Brie, however, has 95 calories and 7.9 grams of fat per ounce, and cheddar contains 114 calories and 9.4 grams of fat per ounce.
Looking for lower-calorie cheeses? Try part-skim mozzarella, Swiss cheese, and feta cheese. If sodium is a concern for you, Swiss cheese, containing only 53 milligrams per ounce, could be a good option, and steer clear of feta cheese, which has 323 milligrams of sodium per ounce.
Typically, harder cheeses contain higher sodium levels as the aging process requires more salt. However, you can often find lower-sodium versions of your favorite cheeses.
|Cheese Type||Calories||Carbs (grams)||Fat (grams)||Protein (grams)||Calcium (% of DV)||Sodium (% of DV)|
|Non-dairy coconut-based cheddar-style slice (0.8 ounces)||95||0.1||7.9||6||4%||8%|
|Cheddar (1 ounce)||114||1||9.4||6.4||15%||8%|
|Feta (1 ounce)||75||1.1||6.1||4||11%||14%|
|Gouda (1 ounce)||101||0.6||7.8||7.1||15%||10%|
|Mozzarella (1 ounce)||85||0.7||6.3||6.3||11%||6%|
|Swiss (1 ounce)||111||0.4||8.8||7.7||19%||2%|
|American (1 ounce)||102||1.3||8.6||5.1||22%||20%|
|Non-dairy coconut-based cheddar style slice (0.8 ounces)||60||4||5||0||11%||7%|
Cheese is delicious, but it turns out it can be addictive, and consuming a lot is probably not good for you. Surprisingly, cheese is packed with good stuff too!
Remember, individual dietary needs can vary widely, and what works well for one person may not work for another. It’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider or a registered dietitian if you have specific dietary concerns or health conditions.
Stay healthy and enjoy your food!