Is Cheese Healthy?
- posted on: June 6, 2013
- posted by: 21 Acres
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With all the headlines that we have read over the past 30 years regarding the link between heart disease and saturated fats, it is easy to associate items like cheese as a “bad” or “forbidden” food. The general message that was delivered by health care professionals in the 1980s and 1990s was that foods high in saturated fats (like cheese) should either be avoided, or consumed in their lower fat / no fat versions. While the research that links saturated fats and heart disease remains strong, the “vilification” of cheese that results is quite unfortunate.
Our society has tended to lean towards a “black and white” mentality when forming opinions on food and health. This is not entirely surprising when you consider just how confusing and contradictory the headlines in the media have been on the topic of nutrition for decades. It can be exceedingly hard to keep the facts straight, and once an individual identifies a fact that seems to be accurate, the tendency to grasp and categorize that information can be powerful. Associations between saturated fat, obesity, heart disease, and high cholesterol have been made in American’s minds causing a belief that cheese is a “bad”/ “forbidden” food that one should feel guilty about eating.
I am here to tell you the other side of the cheese story. The positive side of cheese that Americans can feel good about and less extreme in their feelings of this creamy delicacy. First of all, it is delicious and therefore is worthy of occasional enjoyment for that reason alone. Second of all it is a great source of calcium, vitamin B12, protein, and the little tiny creatures that are emerging more and more in GI and immune health research, probiotics or gut flora. Calcium is especially important for those in periods of growth like children, adolescents, and pregnant women in order to build sufficient bone-mass. Calcium is also important for post-menopausal women who are at risk of the weak bone disease osteoporosis. Vitamin B12 is an essential nutrient that is required for basic conversion reactions in typical cell metabolism. With out sufficient B12 stores in the body, these basic conversions are affected and can severely affect your neurological function and well being. For this reason, it is always a good idea to have a B12 source (like cheese) at least daily. Protein food sources provide the basic building blocks that your body needs to build cells, enzymes, bones and nerve tissue.
Like yogurt, cheese is also a source of healthy probiotic bacteria. Those tiny gut flora organisms (probiotics) are gaining more and more research recently that enlightens us as to just how important they are to our health and how important a healthy balance of them is. Probiotics have been found to secrete anti viral/ fungal compounds, provide a barrier in our gut against harmful bacterial, assist our absorption of vitamins/ minerals, and also help us to breakdown food molecules like fiber, and glucose. Consuming cheese, yogurt, fermented vegetables, fermented legumes (miso and tempe) and consuming sufficient fiber can all help to balance and promote healthy gut flora, which can enhance your immune system function.
Are you convinced yet that this food does have some redeeming qualities? Of course there is fat, cholesterol, and saturated fat in almost all cheese. We absolutely do not want to over do the saturated fat in our diet due to its is close link with heart disease and obesity. You might ask as many already have, how is it that the French eat so much rich food and cheeses, yet they do not have the obesity or heart disease statistics that the US has? France is only topped by Greece for average cheese consumption. Greece is statistically a very heart healthy culture as well. Another interesting fact is that these cultures generally do not manufacture low fat or “light” cheeses either as we do in the US.
But let’s remember what is often times the biggest challenge with saturated fat intake… portion size. Here in America we like to eat big and to have big portion sizes. This habit has unfortunately led to overeating, which of course oftentimes can lead to overweight and obesity. European cultures are much better at portioning out their serving sizes, but we can do this too! If we are to snack on something like cheese that has some saturated fat in it, it is always good to keep portion size in mind. One ounce is about one portion of cheese. That is about one square single of cheddar or American cheese (think kraft singles size), or one mozzarella stick. When reading the nutrition label remember that the average person should not usually exceed about 16- 22 g of saturated fat per day and take note of what the serving size is. Be realistic with yourself as to how large a slice you might be cutting for yourself off of the block of cheese, and how many slices you really should be having. For those who suffer from high cholesterol/ heart disease the lower the amount of saturated fat that you consume the better. Sometimes it is helpful for those who must limit their cheese intake to consume strongly flavored cheeses that do not require much volume to provide flavor… think feta cheese crumbles, sharp cheddar shreds, or an asiago cheese on your pasta. A little goes a long way with those flavors.
In conclusion I encourage those that can digest dairy well to go ahead and enjoy their cheese!
This post was written by Catherine (Cat) Cantin. B