Despite the increasing awareness that dietary fat is essential for health and well being, cheese still suffers from an adverse nutritional image. Cheese is demonized by uninformed individuals for being high in sodium, acidic, contributing to heart disease, causing cancer, and making people fat.
Cheese is incredibly rich in nutrients and has many redeeming qualities, making it a healthy fat that you may want to include in your diet in order to get the following benefits:
Benefit #1: Lower Body Fat
Mention cheese to the average dieter and they will run away screaming. Being calorie-dense, high in fat, and easy to overeat, most people think cheese is fattening. In fact, research shows that with a little foresight and self-control, cheese may help with weight control and improve body composition.
In the Framingham Heart Study, results showed that there was no association between cheese consumption and weight gain over a 13-year period. This study also looked at the effects of dairy intake and found that people who ate more dairy had better weight maintenance compared to those who ate less.
In a randomized trial, obese women who started a weight training program and went on a diet high in dairy, especially cheese, lost more body fat and gained more muscle than a group with a low intake of dairy. Notably, the women who ate cheese lost more belly fat from the abdominal area and finished the study with a lower body fat percentage than those who avoided cheese.
Finally, a large analysis found that when people are trying to lose body fat, eating more dairy foods are linked to greater loss of body fat, with high-dairy diets producing a 1.29 kg greater decrease in fat.
Why It Works: Cheese contains calcium, which improves how the body processes dietary fat, increasing fat excretion from the body. Cheese is also a stellar source of protein, clocking in with an amino acid index that varies between 91 and 97—just slightly lower than milk or eggs. Protein is satiating, leading people to eat less and it is preferably used by the body to repair tissue instead of being stored as body fat.
Benefit #2: Better Cardiovascular Health
Another widespread myth is that because cheese is high in saturated fat it is bad for your heart. Studies consistently show this is not so.
For example, in a study that followed a large group of Swedish women for 12 years, those that ate the most cheese had a 26 percent lower risk of heart attacks than those who ate the least. Dairy intake was quite high in the group with the lowest heart attack risk: The average woman enjoyed 8.4 servings of dairy a day, of which more than half was cheese.
A second study set out to explore what is known as the “French paradox”—the fact that the French have high rates of saturated fat intake but low rates of heart disease and heart attacks. This study found that people with diets higher in cheese had lower levels of cardiovascular inflammation and lower LDL cholesterol. Compared with milk intake, cheese consumption resulted in higher levels of butyrate, which is an anti-inflammatory compound that feeds the healthy bacteria in your gut. Butyrate may also have metabolic benefits, contributing to better body composition.
Why It Works: Because cheese is high in saturated fat it has been vilified for causing heart disease, but recent studies show that saturated fat has no negative impact on cardiovascular health. And in certain cases, such as with cheese, it is protective because cheese goes through a fermentation process, raising butyrate, which improves cholesterol levels and counters cardiovascular inflammation.
Benefit #3: Lower Blood Pressure
Another surprise considering the sodium and fat content in cheese: Regular consumption may lower blood pressure. For example, in an Italian study of people with high blood pressure, whose who ate Grana Padano (an Italian semi-fat hard cheese) daily ended up with significantly lower blood pressure values after 2 months compared to a placebo. In the cheese group, systolic blood pressure dropped by 6 mmHg and diastolic by 5 mmHg, a substantial decrease of clinical relevance.
Why It Works: Cheese contains bioactive peptides that have a blood pressure-lowering effect by inhibiting angiotensin activity. Additionally, cheese goes through fermentation, which leads to the production of beneficial probiotic bacteria, which are known to counter inflammation in the blood vessels. Finally, the high protein content and nutrients in cheese likely also play a role in improving vascular function.
Benefit #4: Improve Insulin Sensitivity & Fight Diabetes
No studies have specifically tested the effect of cheese consumption on diabetes, but dairy foods are linked to better insulin health and glucose control. In particular, fermented dairy such as cheese and yogurt were associated with improvement in insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels in a Brazilian study of 10,000 people.
A second study of Swedish subjects found a much lower diabetes risk with a high intake of high-fat but not low-fat dairy, suggesting that diary fat has a protective effect on metabolic health. The link was robust between cream, high-fat, milk, and cheese.
Why It Works: In addition to the beneficial changes to gut bacteria from butyrate and probiotics, the fat in cheese slows digestion, which can lead to healthier, more gradual elevations in blood sugar after a meal. Additionally, the combination of high-quality protein and a compound called lactoferrin may improve insulin sensitivity and metabolic function.
Benefit #5: Lower Cancer Risk
The association between dairy foods and cancer are somewhat conflicting, however, there is strong evidence that they are protective against colon cancer because the high calcium content lowers inflammation in the colon. In one study, both cheese and yogurt were linked to significantly lower incidence of colon cancer. A second large study found a lower risk of ovarian cancer in women who ate more hard cheese.
Why It Works: Cheese contains several nutrients with cancer fighting properties: CLA, lactoferrin, and bioactive peptides all have anti-cancer activity in the body. Calcium and certain fatty acids in the dairy fat of cheese also appear to lower cancer rates, while decreasing inflammation.
Benefit #6: Better Bone Health & Less Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is thought to be largely preventable with the right diet and proper physical activity. Consuming cheese and dairy in the context of a healthy diet are linked with greater bone density, lower fracture risk and less osteoporosis, especially in elderly women. Because cheese is so nutrient dense, a little bit goes a long way in helping older people meet nutrition needs.
Why It Works: In addition to calcium, which is often lacking as people reach adulthood and stop drinking milk, cheese provides a range of nutrients necessary for bone health. Vitamin D and K are fat soluble vitamins that need to be consumed with dietary fat for proper absorption. For example, leafy greens are high in vitamin K, but the body is only able to digest this necessary nutrient if the greens are consumed with fat.
In addition, cheese provides a range of highly digestible amino acids. This is a game-changer because bone is more than 50 percent protein, making intake of a wide range of amino acids critical for bone building. Finally, cheese provides inorganic phosphate, which works with calcium to improve bone strength and reduce osteoporosis.
Benefit #7: Fewer Cavities
It’s ironic because cheese has been incorrectly shunned as a food to avoid on an alkaline diet. Although eating cheese has no measurable effect on the pH of your blood, it has an acid buffering effect on the teeth. In one study, people who ate 1/3 oz. of cheese after rinsing with a sugar solution had a rapid decrease in acidity, which lowers risk of cavities.
Why It Works: Eating cheese boosts the flow of saliva to remove debris and neutralize acids in the mouth, thereby decreasing tooth erosion. The calcium, phosphorus, and protein also increase mineralization of tooth enamel. Finally, dental health is closely linked with gut health, and we know that cheese contains compounds that lower gut inflammation and improve your healthy bacteria.
The Bottom Line: Cheese is best used as a condiment or flavor enhancer with salads, vegetable dishes, meat, and seafood rather than a main entrée, being both nutrient- and calorie-rich.
Take note that many of the studies cited in this article used international populations who didn’t eat the American diet that is packed with ultra-processed foods and high in carbs. The way most Americans eat probably cancels out many of the benefits of cheese: Slathering it on pizza or over nachos, with a stack of refined wheat crackers, or in between two slabs of bread is not going to give you the optimal outcome.
In buying cheese, keep in mind that there’s a wide range in quality. Opt for high-quality full-fat cheese over processed and reduced or low-fat varieties for the greater nutrition, taste, and healthy compounds (CLA, bioactive peptides, and butyrate). Organic cheese is especially healthy. A comparison found that organic diary has superior levels of omega-3s, CLA, and vitamin K than conventional products due to the cow’s diets of fresh grass and legumes.