Cheese is healthy (again)

cheesechunkHere’s one thing I love about the field of nutrition: nothing is sacred.  We have one idea set in concrete, and then some new research comes along and the concrete starts to crack.  What we thought was bad turns out to be good.  What we thought was healthy — mmm, not so much.

The ongoing controversy about saturated fats is the perfect example.  They were considered the root cause of all health problems.  Food companies scrambled to cleanse foods of saturated fats, even foods that are inherently full of saturated fats.  We ended up with fake cheese, low fat milk and hydrogenated vegetable oils with trans fats.  Oops!  Now  a growing pro-saturated fat faction claims that saturated fats are healthy.

Which brings me to cheese.  Real cheese is naturally high in saturated fat.  It makes cheese melt nicely and gives it a lovely texture and flavor.  And, according to a new study, those fats may in fact provide health benefits.

The researchers were inspired by the so-called French Paradox: why are French people healthy, despite eating a diet with plenty of saturated fat.  The original theory was that wine was key.  Makes sense to wine lovers.  Studies were designed to investigate special health properties of wine.  But now, with increasing focus on saturated fats, the focus turned to the cheese itself.  In particular, this study looks at the by-products of saturated fat digestion.  The saturated fat in cheese is metabolized by gut microbes to short chain fatty acids, such as butyrate.  Subjects eating a diet high in cheese excreted significantly more butyrate compared to a diet high in milk.

Butyrate is linked to lower cholesterol.  It acts as an energy source for cells lining the colon, and can have an anti-inflammatory effect in the gut.  So theoretically, eating cheese can help maintain gut health.  Meanwhile in the US, we’ve been told to avoid cheese, or eat fake, low-fat cheese for better health.

But what about the calories?  Being high fat, cheese is high calorie.  To control calories, control portions.  The best approach is modest amounts of cheese: a small piece for a snack, or a bit of cheese grated onto a salad or a burrito.

Hard cheeses are nutritionally very similar, even though they taste different.  Higher fat cheeses, like Brie, are softer due to higher fat content.  Some nutrition facts for 1 oz of cheese:

  • 110 calories
  • 7 grams protein
  • 9-10 grams fat
  • 5-6 grams saturated fat
  • 200 mg calcium
  • some vitamin A, zinc, B12 and vitamin K

Cheese-making involves the addition of salt, so cheese is a source of sodium, 160 – 190 mg per oz.

I’m adding more cheese to my diet, in small amounts, using a variety of interesting cheeses.  Right now I’ve got a cheddar from Oregon, a cheddar from England, Manchego (one of my faves) and Jarlesberg.  I’ll eat a few thin slices for a high protein snack, or grated on salad.

If you really want to participate in the French Paradox lifestyle, serve a cheese plate for dessert.  Pick 3-4 different cheeses, arrange on a platter or cutting board, add some fresh fruit, such as grapes of apple slices.  A couple of small bites of cheese and fruit might be a satisfying 100-150 calories.  A big piece of cake or bowl of ice cream could be 300-400 calories, and your gut microbes won’t metabolize cake into butyrate.

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