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Cheese: The Good, the Fat, and the Strinky

By Beth Sumrell, MPH, RD

There just aren’t many foods versatile enough to highlight low-brow chow like mac and cheese, but still dress up for company with the help of a fine Cabernet. Cheese: Love it or hate it, the ubiquitous food is a familiar choice in just about every corner of the world. But much as we love to sprinkle Parmesan on our marinara, adding cheese usually feels like a guilty pleasure. Its longstanding reputation as the greasy stepchild of the dairy family has ousted it from many a health-minded man’s diet. However, those who believe cheese has no place in a balanced diet would be wise to think again. When carefully selected and portion controlled, cheese can be an integral part of a healthy diet.

Grating Down the Nutrition Facts
Before you rush out to the cheesemonger, let us reiterate: The words cheese and restraint go hand in hand. If you choose cheese made with whole milk, it will be loaded with fat (especially saturated fat) and cholesterol. Just one serving (1.5 ounces—that’s the size of six stacked dice) of cheddar cheese can take up almost a quarter of your recommended fat intake and half of your recommended saturated fat intake for the day. If you keep topping your cracker and eat two servings, you’re not only close to maxing out your saturated fat recommendation for the entire day, but you’ll also be exceeding a quarter of your day’s cholesterol and nearly a quarter of sodium.

Comparatively speaking, most whole milk cheeses have a roughly similar nutrition profile (there are exceptions, of course). In most cases, you can count on whole milk cheese to have around four to six grams of saturated fat and around 100 calories per ounce.

Doing Dairy with Cheese
So if cheese is loaded with fat, how does it fit into a healthy diet? The facts are in the fat. Most of your cheese choices should be reduced fat or fat free, with whole milk cheese taking a spot in your diet as an occasional treat (read: once or twice a week). If you’re nervous about buying low-fat or fat-free cheese, fear not. When fat-free and reduced-fat cheese made their debut years ago, they reminded the palate of plastic or paste. Thankfully, these products have improved significantly over the years with improved taste, texture, and meltabilty.

But you’re not off the hook entirely with reduced-fat or fat-free cheese. When manufacturers take out the fat, they add sodium to enhance the flavor, making reduced-fat cheese a higher-sodium pick. If you’re watching your sodium (and everyone should), pay close attention to the amount of cheese you eat. To ensure that you’re not overdoing your cheese intake, mix up your servings with other dairy foods like low-fat milk and yogurt

How much cheese should you be eating? For healthy men, the government’s current recommendation for dairy intake is three cups of fat-free or low-fat dairy. For cheese, a cup equivalent takes the form of 1.5 ounces of hard cheese (like cheddar or Swiss), 1/3 cup shredded cheese, or two cups of cottage cheese. Cheese can help you achieve your recommended dairy servings for the day.

Good Nutrition, Great Taste
Cheese is a great source of calcium and protein. Calcium is essential to building strong bones and teeth as well as other cellular functions such as muscle contraction and nerve signaling. Protein serves many functions, from promoting muscle growth to keeping your blood sugar on an even keel so you’re satisfied longer after eating. Cheese’s versatility and portability makes it a go-to food for an afternoon snack to keep you going strong till dinnertime.

The good nutrition news gets better. Cheese can reduce the risk for some chronic diseases, since a 2007 study found that men with a high dairy intake had a lower risk for developing Type 2 diabetes. And for people who are lactose intolerant, cheese may be the answer to fitting in calcium rich dairy foods. Aged cheeses like cheddar or Swiss contain very little lactose, so those who are lactose intolerant can try a small serving to test tolerance. If you’re lactose intolerant, a grilled cheese may be a great way to get your dairy.

Casting Stones at Cheese
In the past, many men have been reluctant to add dairy products like cheese into their diet for fear of increasing the risk of developing a kidney stone. While men are more likely to develop kidney stones than women, dairy does not appear to be the culprit. A 1997 Harvard Study found that a high-calcium intake from dairy foods may actually lower the risk for developing kidney stones.

Cheeses by Type
Pizza tonight? Perhaps it’s a cheese and bean burrito you’re craving. Go ahead and sprinkle the cheese on—in moderation. Cheese can be a great addition to a healthy lifestyle if you watch the portion size and make your choice wisely. Below we’ve listed some of the most popular cheese types, from those you can eat regularly, to the cheese you should savor occasionally.

Cheese Type Eat Regularly or Occasionally? Why We Love It Proceed with Caution Beyond the Cracker
Half and Half Cheese Mix
You mix it: half shredded fat free cheese and half shredded reduced fat cheese
Eat it regularly as part of a healthy diet Lower fat than reduced-fat cheese but more flavor than fat-free cheese. Big bonus: Reduced-fat and fat-free cheeses are higher in calcium than whole milk cheese. Since this combination may not melt well due to the fat-free cheese (it’s better these days but far from perfect), avoid using it on foods where melting is visually important (like pizza). Sprinkle on tacos, chili, and salads. Add to dips, casseroles, and quesadillas. Adding strong flavors like onion or garlic adds a complementary flavor punch.
Reduced-Fat Cheeses
Look for 50-percent or 75-percent reduced fat, 1- or 2-percent milk, or part skim.
Eat it regularly as part of a healthy diet. Keeps the flavor, cuts the fat. Try it: After a while your taste buds will love it as much as the full-fat version. Even though the saturated fat is cut significantly, it’s still easy to overload on fat if you’re don’t watch the serving size. Because reduced-fat cheese melts well, you can substitute it easily for regular full-fat cheese. Meals, snacks, appetizers…the possibilities are endless.
Cottage Cheese
Fat-free, 1-percent, or 2-percent cottage cheese
Eat it regularly as part of a healthy diet Protein rich to help satisfy your daily protein requirements. Practice measuring a cup until you can visualize the serving size; it’s easy to keep scooping beyond a healthy portion. Mix 2-percent-fat cottage cheese with fresh seasonal fruit for an afternoon snack that beats vending machine junk.
Big Flavor Cheeses
Parmesan, Romano, Feta, Blue Cheese, Roquefort
Eat occasionally to fairly regularly as part of a healthy diet, but limit your portion size to one or two tablespoons at a time, instead of the standard 1.5-ounce serving. Superior flavor—yum... These whole milk cheeses are high in saturated fat, but you don’t need much to deliver big flavor. Just be sure you sprinkle with caution since these contain a considerable amount of saturated fat. Sprinkle a little parmesan on roasted veggies to add extra flavor, or make a quick and healthy salad with chopped granny smith apples, shredded cabbage, a dash of rice wine vinegar, and a couple tablespoons of feta. Remember to use very small one-tablespoon servings so you don't eat up your daily caloric intake in one sitting.
Whole Milk Cheeses
Whole milk Swiss, cheddar, mozzarella, and gouda, to name a few
Eat it occasionally as a treat—no more than once or twice per week. Familiar favorites with big flavor and creamy texture. Artery-clogging saturated fat adds up fast when you eat whole milk cheeses. It’s critical to stick to the serving size. Since you’re only going to be enjoying these occasionally, eat them unadulterated—with a simple piece of fruit or fresh bread. Perhaps with just a glass of wine. Savor each bite and stop at a serving.