Research suggests that cheese may be healthier than you thought

Rich and creamy, the cheese tastes great on a cracker, with fresh fruit, or sprinkled over a bowl of chili. Most Americans just love it. Annual per capita consumption is 40 pounds, or a little more than 1.5 ounces per day, according to The Washington Post, an American newspaper. However, when people talk about their fondness for cheese, it’s often in a guilty way, such as “Cheese is my weakness.”

“Cheese is packed with nutrients like protein, calcium and phosphorus and can serve a healthy purpose in the diet,” said Lisa Young, an associate professor of nutrition at New York University, according to The Washington Post.

Research shows that even full-fat cheese doesn’t necessarily cause weight gain or heart attacks. Cheese does not appear to increase or decrease your risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes, and some studies show that it may even be protective.

Good bacteria, lower saturated fat risks

It’s easy to see why people might feel conflicted about cheese. For years, the U.S. Dietary Guidelines claimed that eating low-fat dairy products was best because full-fat dairy products like full-fat cheese contain saturated fat, which can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol, a known risk factor for heart disease. Cheese has also been blamed for weight gain and digestive problems such as bloating. 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? “There’s more to cheese than just saturated fat content,” said Emma Feeney, an assistant professor at University College Dublin’s Institute for Food and Health, who studies the health effects of cheese.

Old thinking about nutrition focused on single nutrients—such as fat or protein—that either promote or prevent disease. It’s not clear that this is a bad approach, but nutritionists are now putting more emphasis on the whole food and how its structure, nutrients, enzymes and other components interact.

When milk is turned into cheese, the process changes the way the nutrients and other components in it are chemically arranged. This affects how the body digests and processes it, which can lead to health effects that differ from those of consuming 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 either butter or cheese form and then switched over the course of the study.

“We found that the saturated fat in cheese did not raise LDL cholesterol to the same extent as butter,” she said.

Experts have different theories about why the saturated fat in cheese is less harmful. “Some studies show that the mineral content in cheese, especially calcium, can bind with fatty acids in the gut and flush them out of the body,” Feeney said. Other studies suggest that fatty acids called sphingolipids in cheese may increase the activity of genes that help break down cholesterol in the body.

When cheese is made, it also acquires some beneficial compounds. “Vitamin K can be formed during the fermentation process,” said 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 bone and blood vessel health.

And as fermented foods, “both raw and pasteurized cheeses contain good bacteria that can be beneficial to the human gut,” says Adam Brock, vice president of food safety, quality and compliance for Dairy Farmers of Wisconsin. Found primarily in ripening cheese like cheddar and Gouda, these good bacteria help break down food, synthesize vitamins, prevent disease-causing bacteria from taking hold, and boost immunity.

Weight gain, misunderstanding with lactose

Cheese also appears to reduce the risk of weight gain and several chronic diseases. Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. However, studies suggest that you don’t need to cut out cheese to balance the scale. In one published in the New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to find out which foods are associated with weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the United States for 20 years, tracking their weight every four years. Cheese was not associated with gain or loss, even in people who increased the amount they ate during the study.

One of the reasons why 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 per day) had a 10 percent lower risk than those who didn’t don’t eat any. Other analyzes have found that cheese does not appear to affect the risk of heart disease.

Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy products 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 consuming two daily servings of full-fat dairy products or a mixture of full-fat and low-fat dairy products was associated with a 24 and 11 percent reduction in the risk of both diseases. compared to no food. Eating only low-fat dairy products slightly increased the risk. And among people who didn’t have diabetes or hypertension at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy each day were less likely to develop the disease during the study.

Lactose intolerance: Lactose, the 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 remaining lactose is found in the whey, which separates from the curds and drains off at the end of the cheese-making process. If you’re lactose intolerant, stick to hard or aged cheese like cheddar, provolone, parmesan, blue, ermine and gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheese like ricotta and cottage cheese.

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

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

Some studies have found that the health benefits of cheese are greatest when they replace less healthy foods such as red or processed meat. So there’s a big difference between shredding niva for a salad and serving a double cheese pepperoni pizza. “Incorporating cheese into a Mediterranean diet where you also include fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other foods known to reduce your risk of disease will be most beneficial for your overall health,” Young said.

For those watching their sodium intake, the cheese can be pretty salty. (Salt acts as a preservative.) If you eat about an ounce a day, it’s not a big deal. Most types will give you 150 to 300 milligrams of sodium per ounce. (The daily value is no more than 2,300 mg.) But eat more, and sodium can add up.

As The Washington Post reports, the form of cheese can also affect how it affects health. “Many studies on cheese and health use unmelted cheese,” Feeney said, adding, “We still don’t know how melting or cooking affects health outcomes, such as eating cheese on pizza or in cooked foods like casseroles.”

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