Oct. 28, 2013 at 8:08 PM ET
Wondering about your wedge?
Cheese has long been a food of confusion. Recent reports have connected this dairy product to everything from speedier weight loss to damaging heart disease. So, what’s the bottom line? Is this food truly healthful and, if so, what kind do you have to eat to reap its benefits: soft or hard, non-fat or full, mild flavored or intense? For a straight slice of the truth, we asked our Health Editor-at-Large, Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, CNS, to sift through the newest research. Here's a look at the latest health risks and benefits and what you need to know to become a true cheese whiz today.
Are bolder cheeses better for you?
The claim: Full-fat cheeses are better for you than low- or no-fat versions.
The bottom line: Nope, low fat cheeses contain the same amount of nutrients (such as bone-building calcium and vitamin D) as their full-fat counterparts without the health-sapping saturated fat. One downside of slimmer slices: Low-fat or fat-free cheeses tend to taste blander than full-fat products, since fat is a major carrier for flavor.
Should lactose intolerant individuals steer clear of cheese?
The claim: Lactose-intolerant individuals cannot eat cheese.
The bottom line: Lactose, a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy foods, is digested using an enzyme in our bodies called lactase. If you’re lacking that enzyme, or it’s not working optimally in your body, the consumption of dairy products may create uncomfortable symptoms, such as an stomach ache, diarrhea, and gas—a collection of woes typically classified as lactose intolerance. Fortunately, recent studies have shown that many people diagnosed with this condition can actually consume one serving of a dairy daily, with no symptoms. So, if you’re lactose intolerant, feel free to eat cheese, but in moderation.
Are firmer cheeses better for your health?
The claim: Hard cheeses are healthier than soft.
The bottom line: Contrary to popular belief, a cheese’s physical texture isn’t connected to its nutritional value. The truth is, almost all cheeses have the same nutrient composition, but with significant differences in the level of saturated fat, calories and sodium. So check product labels carefully before buying. My advice: Hard or soft aside, to achieve the biggest health bang for your buck, stick with low-fat cheeses to satisfy your next craving.
Cheese is a bone builder, right?
The claim: Eating cheese promotes strong bones.
The bottom line: Yes, cheese can be a big help when it comes to sustaining a strong skeleton. That’s because this food has a hefty dose of naturally-occurring calcium and is often fortified with vitamin D, a nutrient which enhances calcium absorption. More good news: Just a little can go a long way. A one-ounce cheese serving (about the size of a pair of dice) provides about one-fourth of your daily calcium requirement.
Can too much cheese take a toll on your ticker?
The claim: Cheese can cause heart disease.
The bottom line: While this statement contains a ring of truth, not all cheeses are bad for your health. Fat-free and low-fat products are fine in moderation. However, full-fat cheeses are not your friend, since these foods typically contain hefty amounts of artery-clogging saturated fat—up to 6 grams in just one ounce of full-fat cheese (the size of a pair of dice!) That’s about one third of the total saturated fat recommended for good health in a single day. And a diet high in saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease. So, to sidestep future health woes, stick with low-fat cheeses in the future.
A steady diet of slices can help you slim
The claim: Cheese promotes better weight loss.
The bottom line: There’s currently no definitive scientific evidence to show that cheese provides an extra weight loss boost. What we do know: Full-fat cheeses can be loaded with calories—even a thin slice typically has about 100 calories—so consuming too much can easily create a derail your diet.
Can you become addicted to cheese?
The claim: Cheese is an addictive food.
The bottom line: Constantly craving cheese? Though this food does contain proteins called casomorphins that are chemically related to well known addiction pathways in the brain, recent research has revealed cheese is not addictive. Unlike with alcohol, a person’s cravings for cheese do not have a biological basis; the cravings are purely behavioral, a matter of habit. So, enjoy cheese in moderate amounts, and don’t worry about getting hooked.
Our final word on cheese
The bottom line: One of nature’s best double-duty foods, cheese is a solid source of satiating protein and bone-building calcium. To optimize its health benefits, opt for reduced- or non-fat cheeses and avoid full-fat varieties. Have a hankering for something richer? Go ahead, but keep your portion size in check to avoid consuming too much saturated fat.
A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.