By Lisa Elaine Held
When you think of healthy foods, cheese probably isn’t at the top of your list. But is it actually bad for you, or is it just guilt by association because cheese is piled on top of indulgences like pizza and nachos?
Recent research has been changing the way experts think about fat and cholesterol-rich foods, of which cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and others are among the best loved and most ubiquitous.
“Cheese can certainly be part of a healthy diet,” says Alissa Rumsey, MS, RD, a New York City-based nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The trick is to enjoy it in small portions alongside other nutritious foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds. “One to two ounces of cheese is a good portion size. One ounce of hard cheese is about the size of four dice,” she notes.
In other words, you don’t want to make feta or gouda the star of the show on your plate, but they can totally kill it as supporting cast members. Here are a few reasons to make a scrumptious cheese plate for your next dinner party, along with tips to be sure you’re incorporating it in the best way.
WHY YOU SHOULD EAT CHEESE
Cheese is filling and contains important nutrients: You already know you need plenty of protein, and the protein-fat combo in cheese also makes it super satiating. “It can help to fill you up and keep you full for longer,” Rumsey says. It’s also a good source of vitamins and minerals like calcium, vitamin B12, riboflavin, and phosphorus.
Its fats may actually be good for you: High-fat foods used to be associated with conditions like obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, but scientists now know that not all fats are created equal. Different fatty acid profiles have different effects on inflammatory markers, insulin levels, and more. “Some studies have suggested that the fats in dairy products, including cheese, could have a beneficial effect on different lipid and metabolic markers,” Rumsey says, though more research is needed in this area. Researchers at Harvard identified a fatty acid in cheese that may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes, while a 2016 meta-analysis found that daily cheese consumption was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
It won’t raise your cholesterol: Nutrition experts used to link eating high-fat and high-cholesterol foods with high blood cholesterol, which is connected to heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. “However, more recent evidence shows no relationship between consuming foods high in cholesterol and blood levels of cholesterol when looking at a typical American diet,” Rumsey notes. Small studies have shown eating cheese, specifically, does not raise blood cholesterol levels.
WHICH CHEESES ARE BEST?
There’s still some strategy required for eating cheese. Besides portion control, choose grass-fed and organic varieties, “especially with the higher-fat cheeses, since fat holds onto any hormones or antibiotics that may have been used in the livestock,” she adds.
Unaged cheeses—like mozzarella and cream cheese—contain lactose, which many people have trouble digesting. So depending on your body, you may want to skip certain cheeses to avoid bloating and other gut woes. (By the way, though cheese is fermented and contains live bacteria, it’s not considered a good source of beneficial probiotics.)
Finally, if you’re wondering whether some are better for you than others, Rumsey says she recommends choosing the ones you enjoy the most and eating a variety. “Stronger-tasting cheeses, like fresh Parmesan or blue cheese, allow you to use less of the cheese and get more flavor,” she says. “Cottage cheese is also a great option since it is a great source of protein and lower in fat.” Goat cheese has more vitamins and minerals than many cow’s milk cheeses and is much easier to digest as well, making it another good option.
Now, the question is, which natural wine will you pair with that manchego?