A Healthier Tomorrow – Good news for “Cheeseheads”

A Healthier Tomorrow – Good news for “Cheeseheads” – Pass the Parmesan please!

Imagine a Healthier Tomorrow

By Alison H. Page

February is heart health month.  And, just in time, we have some good news for Wisconsinites.  Cheese is good for you!  This is disruptive news for healthy eaters who often stay away from cheese because it tends to be high in calories.  In the past, nutritional guidelines recommended minimizing consumption of whole-fat dairy products, as they are a source of saturated fats and presumed to adversely affect blood lipids and increase cardiovascular disease and mortality.  But, new research published in 2018 in the scientific journal The Lancet Opens a New Window. , found that cheese, and other full-fat dairy foods such as milk and butter, may actually be better for you than their low-fat counterparts.

To reach this potentially meal-changing conclusion, a group of scientists from all over the world monitored the food intake of more than 136,000 people from 21 different countries over a nine-year period. The researchers used country-specific food frequency questionnaires to gather data. Dairy products comprised milk, yogurt, and cheese. They further grouped the foods into whole-fat and low-fat dairy. Researchers then identified how many of the people in the study died or experienced a major cardiovascular event (defined as a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure) during the nine years.

According to the research, higher intake of total dairy (more than two servings per day compared with no intake) was associated with a lower risk of death, heart attack or stroke. Specifically, the research showed that full-fat dairy can reduce death from cardiovascular disease by nearly a quarter and slash the risk of heart disease and strokes by 22 percent and 34 percent, respectively.  As the study’s conclusion states, “Dairy consumption was associated with lower risk of mortality and major cardiovascular disease events in a diverse multinational cohort.”

Not surprisingly, cheese fans were overjoyed by these results.  But, that is not the end of the good news about cheese.  There is more. 

Filling up on cheese could actually help you slim down. A 2015 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, linked a diet rich in cheese with higher levels butyric acid, a compound that’s linked to faster metabolisms and a decreased risk of obesity. That may be why the average Frenchman, who puts away 57 pounds of cheese a year, is slimmer and has a longer lifespan than the average American.

In addition, eating 1 3/4 ounces of cheese a day may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 8 percent, says an analysis of cohort studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There’s more good news from the same study—people who ate about 3/4 cup of yogurt daily had even lower risk.

Lastly, because of its high calcium and protein content, cheese can make you stronger by strengthening your bones and muscles.  Low calcium significantly increases the risk of osteoporosis— a disease of the skeletal system in which bones become fragile. Protein supports strong muscles.  Researchers of a study published in 2014 in Clinical Interventions in Aging said that eating almost a cup of ricotta cheese a day for 12 weeks boosted muscle mass and improved balance in healthy adults over 60.   

There is considerable disagreement amongst researchers and nutritionists about which cheeses are best for you, just google, “which cheese is best for you?”  Of course, if you have a health condition that requires you to follow a special diet, you should consult with your dietician.  But, in general, based on my own review of available information, I suggest the following guidelines:

  1. Eat real cheese. Like you needed an excuse to never eat singles again: Many of the “cheeses” in your dairy aisle aren’t even technically cheese. Check the label. You’ll probably either read “pasteurized process cheese,” which, phew, means it’s 100 percent cheese; “pasteurized process cheese food,” which means it is at least 51 percent cheese; or “pasteurized process cheese product,” which means it is less than 51 percent cheese.  The rest? Often emulsifiers, vegetable oils, and additives that earn processed foods their generally horrible health rap.
  2. Go for full-fat, not low-fat. As stated above, the saturated fat in cheese is good for you.  Although some reduced- and fat-free cheeses are naturally low in fat, others contain added starches and gums to get the texture closer to that of the full-fat variety.  These additives are not good for you.
  3. Buy Organic. Some may find this recommendation controversial, but here are the facts.  Eating organic cheese reduces possible exposure to hormones and antibiotics fed to some livestock.  Fat carries the largest doses of the hormones and antibiotics used in non-organic livestock, and cheese contains a lot of fat.  In addition, a study in 2013 found that organic dairy has 62 percent more heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids than conventional milk.  Also, cheese produced from grass-fed cows is high in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). CLA is a kind of naturally occurring trans fat that is extremely healthy. 

So, the next time you are in the dairy aisle, pick up some cottage cheese, aged cheddar, parmesan and ricotta.  And, pass the parmesan, please!