When it comes to cheese, you’ll either hear it’s very good for you, or that it can make you fat and unhealthy. But these extremes don’t provide a fair picture of dairy. The truth is actually somewhere in the middle.
The Good and the Bad of Cheese
Cheese is a great source of calcium and protein. It also contains high amounts of vitamins A and B12, along with zinc, phosphorus, and riboflavin.
According to several studies, cheese could work to protect your teeth from cavities. A study from Finland showed that bacteria from the Lactobacillus rhamnosus strain, a bacteria found in cheese, can lower the count of cavity-causing yeast in the mouth. An Indian study also found that cheese with no sugar added can increase the calcium and phosphate concentration in dental plaque, which reduces the likelihood of cavities.
High-fat cheeses like blue cheese, Brie, and sharp cheddar contain small amounts of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). This is a fatty acid that naturally occurs in foods, but it is also taken as a supplement. Supplements of CLA have been shown to be anti-carcinogenic, meaning that they can protect against cancer. They also may help prevent heart disease and obesity. However, you’d have to eat a whole lot of cheese to get the amount of CLA needed to reach supplement levels.
Despite all of this, cheese is a high-fat and high-calorie food. Depending on the variety of cheese you eat, you’re getting about 100 calories per ounce and about 6 to 9 grams of fat, mostly of the saturated kind. It’s also loaded with sodium.
One recent study looked at diets high in animal proteins, including cheese. They found that eating a diet rich in meat and cheese during middle age can double the risk of death, and quadruple the risk of death by cancer.
Cheese contains lactose, a sugar that can’t be digested by lactose-intolerant people. For them, eating cheese can lead to digestive problems including gas and bloating. People may also be allergic to whey or casein, the proteins found in milk.
Popular Cheese Nutrition Facts
The nutritional value of cheese varies widely from one type to the next. For example, mozzarella, considered one of the healthier cheeses, contains 85 calories and 6.3 grams of fat per ounce. Compare that to Brie, which has 95 calories and 7.9 grams of fat per ounce.
If you want to stick with lower calorie cheeses, try part-skim mozzarella, Swiss cheese, and feta cheese. Mozzarella is also low in fat, with about half that of some other cheeses.
If sodium is a concern, try Swiss, which contains only 20 mg per ounce. Stay away from harder cheeses, as they require more salt in the aging process. Also, look for lower-sodium varieties of your favorite cheeses.
Cheese choices come down to common sense. Having a few cubes with your salad or sprinkled over vegetables isn’t likely to cause any problems (unless you’re lactose intolerant or allergic). On the other hand, regularly eating nachos drenched in melted cheddar and pizzas with extra cheese is clearly not healthy (and for more reasons than just the cheese). As with so many dietary choices, moderation is key.