The Hidden Health Benefits of Cheese

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition
on February 20, 2015
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Brie, cheddar, mozzarella, Gouda. However you slice it, cheese is as versatile as it is delicious. There are more than 300 different types of cheese, including those that are fresh (un-ripened) and those that are aged (ripened). These days, cheese can be found in countless shapes and sizes – sliced, grated, shredded, crumbled, sticks, spreads, blocks, cubes, and so on. So how does cheese fit into your healthy lifestyle? In many, many ways.

First, Let’s Talk Nutrition

Cheese is a great source of high-quality protein, an essential building block for strong muscles. Cheese is also brimming with calcium, one of the nutrients most likely to be lacking in the American diet. In fact, according to government statistics, nine out of 10 women and six out of 10 men fail to meet their calcium recommendations. Cheese also contains a bounty of other nutrients, including zinc (which aids tissue growth and repair, prevents and treats macular degeneration, protects your skin, and helps keep your nails strong), biotin, vitamin A, and vitamin B12.

Let’s Not Forget Bones and Teeth

Cheese protects your teeth from acid erosion—the breakdown of enamel brought on by coffee, tea, wine, soda, and acidic fruits—because it contains sialogogue, a compound that causes salivation, which neutralizes acid and restores pH levels in the mouth. Cheese also contains teeth-strengthening casein phosphate. The calcium in cheese helps keep bones strong, important for guarding against osteoporosis.

What About that Fat?

For as long as we can remember—at least 30 years—saturated fat has been considered a primary cause of heart disease. Saturated fat is found in animal products, including meats, poultry with skin, eggs, butter, whole milk, lard, tropical oils, and cheese. BUT, compelling new research suggests that saturated fat has a minimal impact on heart disease risk. Cleary, further research is needed, but this is promising. That said, even if saturated fat is off the “culprit” list, overconsumption of calories isn’t, and cheese calories can add up fast. To enjoy the nutritional benefits and fabulous flavor of cheese, grate/shred harder cheeses and sprinkle a small amount over dishes just before serving. You can also serve smaller amounts of aromatic and sharp-flavored cheeses because a little goes a long way.

Cheese for Weight Loss and Weight Maintenance

If you’ve shunned cheese in an effort to lose or maintain your weight, take note. Cheese is loaded with protein and because protein takes longer to digest and break down, it curbs hunger and keeps you feeling satisfied after meals and snacks (not the case with simple carbohydrates). Even if you enjoy carbs at the same meal or snack, the protein from the cheese slows the absorption of carbohydrates into the bloodstream, which keeps blood-sugar levels steady (no spiking and crashing).

Lactose Intolerant?

Not to worry, many cheeses, particularly aged cheeses such as cheddar and Swiss, contain little or no lactose and are often well tolerated.

Low Fat and Fat Free Cheese

In my opinion, eating a little of the real thing is better than eating a lot of the fake stuff. Cheeses made with low-fat or 2% milk are suitable options (and the amount of nutrients isn’t affected, just the fat content), but I’m not a fan of fat-free, flavorless cheeses that often have added water, preservatives and ingredients you can’t decipher.

Dietary Guidelines

The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that individuals ages 9 and older consume at least 3 servings of milk, cheese or yogurt each day (children ages 4-8 need 2 1/2 cups per day). One serving of cheese is 1 1/2 ounces of hard cheese (cheddar, mozzarella, Swiss, parmesan), 1/3 cup shredded cheese, 1/2 cup soft cheese (like ricotta), 2 cups cottage cheese, and 2 ounces of processed cheese (American).

A Word of Caution

A few things to consider if you have any of these conditions:

  • High Blood Pressure: Cheese can contain loads of salt so read labels and select varieties with the least amount of sodium.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome: The dairy in cheese can trigger symptoms in those with IBS.
  • Migraines: Aged cheeses can trigger the onset of a migraine.
  • Celiac Disease: Some cheeses, including all blue cheeses, are made with bread mold. Read labels to make sure you avoid those varieties.

Now that I’ve gotten you excited about consuming cheese, here are two fun recipes to get cheese on your table tonight!

Bruschetta with Caramelized Red Onion, Oregano and Cheddar

Robin Miller

Robin Miller

Ingredients:

  • 1 loaf Italian bread or baguette, cut on the diagonal into 1/2-thick slices (about 16 slices)
  • Olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 large red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1/3 cup shredded aged (good-quality) cheddar cheese

Directions: 

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Brush both sides of the bread slices with olive oil and arrange on a large baking sheet (work in batches if necessary to prevent crowding; slices should not overlap).
  3. Bake for 5 to 7 minutes, until lightly golden brown. While the toast is still warm, rub one side with the garlic cloves and season that side with salt and pepper.
  4. Meanwhile, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and cook for 5 to 7 minutes, until the onion slices are golden brown and caramelized. Add the balsamic vinegar and oregano and cook for 1 minute, until the oregano is fragrant.
  5. Arrange the bruschetta on a serving platter and top with the caramelized onions and cheddar cheese.

Makes 16 bruschetta

Nutrients per bruschetta: Calories: 40, Fat: 1g, Saturated Fat: <1g, Cholesterol: 2mg, Carbohydrate: 6g, Protein: 2g, Fiber: <1g, Sodium: 74mg 

Grilled Asparagus with Shaved Parmesan Cheese

Robin Miller

Robin Miller

 Ingredients:

  • Olive oil
  • 1 bunch asparagus (about 40 thin stalks), ends trimmed
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2-inch piece parmesan cheese

 Directions:

  1. Coat a stove-top grill pan or griddle with olive oil and preheat to medium-high. Add the asparagus and cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until golden brown and crisp-tender, turning frequently. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  2. Arrange the asparagus on a serving platter and drizzle with olive oil. Shave the parmesan cheese over top just before serving.

Serves 4 

Nutrients per serving: Calories: 68, Fat: 1.6g, Saturated Fat: <1g, Cholesterol: 4mg, Carbohydrate: 10g, Protein: 7g, Fiber: 5g, Sodium: 87mg