Cheese lovers take heart: It’s not all bad for you, if you practice portion control

October 17, 2018 Providence Health Team

If you and cheese go together like peas and carrots, then you’ll be relieved to know you don’t have to give it up entirely to enjoy a well-balanced diet. But don’t order your favorite pizza just yet.

The way many Americans enjoy cheese — slathered on pizza, poured over nachos, or loaded on crackers — results in our consuming too much fat and too many calories.  The average American consumed 37.1 pounds of cheese in 2015, and that number is on the rise.

The role that dairy plays in the risk of heart disease is the subject of continuing research, with mixed findings. Some studies say the two appear unrelated, while other researchers say that consuming plant-based fats instead of cheese is linked to a reduced risk of heart disease.

But studies aren’t the same thing as diet recommendations. Cheese is high in saturated fat, which raises your LDL cholesterol; and high levels of LDL cholesterol increase your risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. To enjoy cheese in a moderately healthy way, you’ve got to choose a relatively healthy variety and eat it in small portions. The current daily recommended daily amount of dairy for adults is 3 cups, equivalent to 1.5 ounces of natural cheese. That’s a piece a little larger than the size of four dice.

Besides saturated fat, cheese, which is a rich form of dairy, is also high in calories and sodium. People with lactose intolerance who eat too much dairy can experience painful symptoms like inflammation, gas, diarrhea and nausea.

However, the healthier cheeses also contain important nutrients like calcium. So, if the sight of a cheese plate leaves you feeling weak in the knees, the good can balance the bad, but only if you choose wisely and don’t overdo it.

Decent cheese choices

When you want to indulge in a tasty bite of cheese, these types can be healthy choices in terms of being lower in sodium and/or fat, and higher in calcium and protein:

Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle or shave a bit of parmesan onto salad or whole-grain pasta. 1.5 ounces of grated parmesan contains 12 g fat, 12 g protein and 363 mg, approximately one-third to one-fourth of an adult’s recommended daily intake of calcium. Low-sodium parmesan contains around 3 mg sodium per tbsp, compared to 90 mg per tbsp of regular grated parmesan. The recommended daily value of sodium (for adults without high blood pressure) is less than 2,300 mg per day.

Swiss cheese. Using two two-thirds ounce slices (per day) to make a sandwich provides 10 g protein and 328 mg calcium.

Ricotta cheese. Ricotta is often used as a substitute for sour cream or cream cheese. One-half cup of ricotta cheese contains 9.3 g protein, 12.6 g fat, 255 g calcium, and 136 mg sodium.

You may also want to try cheese alternatives made from nuts or plants, including vegan options made from soy protein.

Whichever cheese you choose, watch your portion size and use it as a flavor enhancer rather than the main ingredient.

Check out more of our nutrition articles where you’ll find delicious, healthy recipes and tips for eating well. Subscribe to our blog and you’ll never miss a health update.

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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