IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

What's the healthiest way to eat cheese? A dietitian explains

Is cheese healthy? It's complicated.
About 40% of Americans fall short on daily calcium requirements and cheese can help fill the gap.
About 40% of Americans fall short on daily calcium requirements and cheese can help fill the gap.sergeyshibut / Getty Images/iStockphoto

So, you love cheese. What’s not to love? It’s decadent, creamy, and delicious. And it’s just as great as a simple snack as it is artfully arranged on a cheese board. It’s also the perfect addition to meals like tacos, pasta and salad. Plus, cheese provides a slew of beneficial nutrients. Cheese contains protein, fat and saturated fat, sodium, calcium, phosphorous, potassium, and vitamin B12, among other nutrients. However, amounts vary, depending on the type of cheese you select. While many of these nutrients are necessary for optimal health, some, like saturated fat and sodium, are discouraged.

Is cheese healthy?

In short, the issue isn’t black and white. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake and replacing it with healthier fats, such as extra virgin olive oil. Doing this has been found to lower cholesterol levels. But, we’re learning that the source of saturated fat may be critical — with certain sources potentially being worse for your heart than others. While early studies supported a link between high saturated fat intake from dairy and a higher risk of heart disease, current research suggests that full-fat dairy may not be as unhealthy as we once thought. It may even have a positive effect, potentially lowering the risk of disease.

Some cheeses are fermented, and it’s possible that the fermentation process favorably influences your microbiome, providing a beneficial effect on your cholesterol levels and inflammatory response. That means that while an individual nutrient, such as saturated fat, may be harmful, other components in a whole food — in this case, cheese — may alter the impact.

7 tips for making your cheese habit healthier

If you’d like to include cheese in your diet, here’s the healthiest way to approach it.

1. Be mindful of portion sizes

While the saturated fat in cheese may not be as harmful as we once thought, most of the current research is suggestive, so we can’t say for sure that the saturated fat in cheese is neutral or beneficial. For now, it’s reasonable to stick to sensible portions — about ¼ cup of shredded cheese, an ounce of hard cheese, or ½ cup of cottage cheese or ricotta cheese per day. Additionally, reduce other sources of saturated fat in your diet, and choose healthier, plant-based oils, such as extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, when cooking.

2. Watch the sodium

Most Americans consume too much sodium, and cheese is a leading source of this nutrient in our diets. Cottage cheese, feta, blue cheese, and parm are on the saltier side, so you may want to eat these less often if you need to limit your sodium intake. Or, you might find that a small portion of a salty cheese, like parmesan, can go a long way, so be strategic when accenting food with cheese. And if you love cottage cheese, look for lower sodium options. Ricotta, Jarlsberg, Swiss, and goat cheeses have less than 150 milligrams of sodium per serving.

3. Consider the calcium levels

About 40% of Americans fall short on daily calcium requirements and cheese can help fill the gap. However, the amount of calcium varies depending on the type of cheese you select. For example, a serving of cream cheese has just 20 milligrams of calcium out of the 1,300 milligrams recommended per day, while brie has about 40 milligrams of the mineral. Parmesan, Asiago, ricotta, and cheddar cheeses provide at least 10% of the daily value for calcium, making them good sources.

4. Weigh the protein content

Like all the nutrients in cheese, protein amounts can differ considerably depending on the specific variety. For example, cream cheese has just 2 grams of protein per ounce, while brie and goat cheese have about 5 grams of protein for the same serving. If you’re looking to boost your protein intake, ricotta, cottage cheese, parmesan, Swiss, Jarlsburg, cheddar, Monterey, and pepper jack cheeses have more than 5 grams of protein per serving.

5. Look at lactose levels

One common misperception is that you need to avoid cheese if you’re lactose intolerant. However, some people can handle lower lactose cheeses or even higher lactose cheeses in smaller portions, particularly when eaten with other foods. Soft cheeses, like cottage and ricotta cheese, tend to have more lactose than hard cheeses. If you’re coping with lactose intolerance, feta, cheddar, Havarti, Gruyere, Swiss, and parmesan are going to be easier on your system.

6. Limit heavily processed cheese

Processed cheeses can range from American cheese to spray canned cheese to sweetened cottage and cream cheeses. The best eating advice is to reduce your intake of heavily processed foods, and that goes for cheese, too. A 2010 study compared the metabolic effect of eating a whole food cheese sandwich made with whole-grain bread and cheddar cheese to a processed cheese sandwich made with white bread and American cheese. Both meals were rated as equally filling, however, the processed meal resulted in half the post-meal calorie burn. This means your body doesn’t have to work as hard to digest the processed cheese sandwich. So, was it the cheese or the bread or the combo of ingredients that resulted in the slowdown? It’s hard to say. But it’s on par with results from other studies. Plus, we know that eating a lot of processed foods can promote unhealthy changes in your gut, not to mention higher sodium and sugar intakes.

7. Be thoughtful about the rest of your diet

The healthiest way to eat cheese partly depends on the foods you select besides cheese. Sure, you can keep cheese portions in check and choose less salty varieties, but if you’re not mindful of the other foods you eat, you may still have a poor-quality diet. In other words, including a sprinkle of parm over roasted broccoli as part of a Mediterranean-style diet is a healthier way to go than having a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich as part of a standard American diet. A healthy eating pattern includes mostly plant foods, such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds, even if it also incorporates some cheese.