Is cheese good for you?
Cheese tends to be a standard accompaniment to popular foods like burgers, pizza, Mexican dishes, salad and sandwiches but can also stand-alone as a snack or an appetizer.
The amount of cheese being consumed in the US has tripled over the past 40 years but is still only half that of European nations like Greece, France and Germany.3
Whether cheese is a healthy choice depends on the individual, the type and amount of cheese being consumed. There are some cheeses that are high in protein and calcium, but there are just as many loaded with sodium and saturated fats.
For someone with a milk allergy, any type of cheese would be off limits. Lactose intolerant individuals may be able to tolerate some types of cheese depending on their level of intolerance.
Vegans or other people avoiding animal products for personal or health reasons would not consume cheese at all and would likely opt for a non-dairy alternative such as soy cheese or daiya.
Types of cheese
There are thousands of varieties of cheese, which can come from several different species. Cows, sheep and goat cheese, are some of the most popularly consumed varieties.
More than one-third of all milk produced each year in the US is used to manufacture cheese.
Whole milk cheese
Made with whole milk and contains 6-10 grams of fat per 1-ounce serving, with 4-6 grams being saturated.
Low-fat or non-fat
Low-fat cheese, also labeled reduced fat cheese, is made with 2% milk. Non-fat cheese is made with 0% or skim milk.
Cheeses that are considered fresh have not been aged. They usually have a higher moisture content, softer texture and milder taste than aged cheeses. Some examples of fresh cheeses are ricotta, cream cheese, cottage cheese and mascarpone.
Aged cheeses are firmer in texture and are generally aged for 6 months or longer. The longer cheese is aged, the more concentrated or sharp the flavor may be. Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan and Gruyere are examples of aged cheeses.
Cheese spread, American cheese, "cheese food" and "cheese flavored" products cannot be categorized as actual cheese and must be labeled as such. They are aimed to create a shelf-stable product using added ingredients like flavor enhancers and emulsifiers.
For people who do not consume dairy, there are non-dairy cheese alternatives such as soy cheese and daiya.
Nutritional breakdown of cheese
In general, cheese is high in calories, sodium and saturated fat. The actual breakdown of macronutrients in cheese will vary depending on the type.
Americans eat over 30 pounds of cheese a year. 11.5 pounds of that is mozzarella, which beats cheddar (9.6 pounds).
One ounce of cream cheese spread contains 84 calories, 8 grams of fat, 1 gram of carbohydrate and 2 grams of protein. One ounce of cheddar cheese has 115 calories, 10 grams of fat, 0 grams of carbohydrate and 7 grams of protein.
Cheese can also contain varying amounts of vitamin A, vitamin B-12, riboflavin, phosphorus, selenium and sodium. Sheep and goat's milk cheese have higher levels of vitamin A, while cow's milk cheese has more beta-carotene.3
The case for cheese
Dairy products are one of the best dietary sources of calcium in terms of bioavailability.
Calcium plays a primary role in the development and maintenance of healthy bones and teeth and is also important for blood clotting, wound healing and maintaining normal blood pressure.
Always try to pair calcium-rich foods with a source of vitamin D, as vitamin D helps the small intestine to absorb calcium. Two ounces of many kinds of cheese can contain 40-50% of the daily calcium requirement.3
The case against cheese
A diet high in sodium and saturated fat is likely to increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
Americans currently consume around 11-12% of their calories from saturated fat, which is likely to increase the risk of high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.
The 2010 Report of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 7% of total calories (about 15 g of saturated fat based on a 2,000-kcal diet).
Americans currently consume around 11-12% of their calories from saturated fat. However, some studies have shown that saturated fat from dairy may not be as harmful as that from other sources.3
Some people choose not to consume dairy in order to follow a vegan diet, which means avoiding any foods that come from an animal, including milk, cheese, eggs and honey.
Others may cut dairy out of their diet in order to avoid hormones and antibiotics in conventional milk, as an acnetreatment, or when following the popular "Paleo" diet.
Allergies, intolerances and sensitivity
Lactose intolerance is a condition in which a person lacks the enzyme to break down the sugar found in milk for proper digestion. Those with lactose intolerance may experience bloating, flatulence or diarrhea when consuming milk and milk products.
Levels of lactose intolerance vary per individual. One person may be able to tolerate aged dairy with low levels of lactose such as yogurt and hard cheeses. However, another may be unable to tolerate even a splash of milk in theircoffee.
The lactose content in hard, aged cheeses like Parmesan and cheddar is low. Try a small amount (1/2 oz.) first to see how your body reacts. Soft, fresh cheeses like mozzarella may be harder to tolerate. Because many people who are lactose intolerant are calcium deficient, cheese can be an important component of their diet.
A milk allergy is different from lactose intolerance and refers to an abnormal immunologic reaction in which the body's immune system produces an allergic antibody, called immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibody, which results in allergy symptoms such as wheezing, diarrhea or vomiting.
Those with an actual milk allergy must strictly avoid dairy in any form, including cheese. Symptoms of a milk allergy can include asthma, eczema, gastrointestinal distress, as well as bleeding, pneumonia, and even anaphylaxis (shock).
Different from both allergies and lactose intolerance, some people have a sensitivity to the casein (a type of protein) in milk. This sensitivity can trigger inflammation throughout the body, which may produce symptoms such as sinus congestion, acne flares, skin rash and migraines.
Most people can consume dairy without any of these issues, but if you suspect that dairy could be causing some of these symptoms, seek out a dietitian to conduct food sensitivity testing or to help you determine whether following a dairy free diet may improve your condition.
Consuming too much phosphorus, which can be high in cheese, may be harmful to those whose kidneys are not fully functional. If your kidneys are unable to remove excess phosphorus from the blood, it could be fatal.
High calcium intakes have been linked with an increased risk of prostate cancer in some studies, however, others have found no associations between prostate cancer and calcium intake.2
Those taking an MAOI (monoamine oxidase inhibitor, a class of drugs used to treat depression and Parkinson's disease) are cautioned to avoid foods high in the amino acid tyramine, found naturally in aged cheeses, cured meats, pickled foods, beer and wine. The longer the food is aged, the higher the tyramine content.
Tyramine-containing foods have also been associated with headaches and migraines. Keeping a food diary may help to identify if tyramine-containing foods are a trigger for you
Your best bet
If you do decide that consuming cheese is right for you, keep in mind that recent studies from the United Kingdom show that organic milk from pasture-raised cattle has higher rates of beneficial fatty acids than conventional dairy.
Conventionally raised dairy cattle are fed primarily grain and often have limited access to roam and graze. If the cattle providing the milk for your cheese have access to healthier food, you will also reap the benefits when you consume products from that cow (meat, cheese, milk, etc.). Look for a grass-fed label or talk to your local farmer about his farming practices.
The solution to whether cheese is good or bad for health is not definite and varies depending on the person and their specific dietary needs. Maintaining proper nutrition is a personalized undertaking.
An 85-year old female with a poor appetite struggling to get the amount of calories and protein needed to heal from a recent hip fracture may benefit greatly from incorporating cheese into her diet, whereas an obese 55-year old male with high blood pressure and a history of cardiovascular disease may benefit from avoiding cheese altogether.
What makes sense for one person might not be in the best interest of the next.
If you have questions about whether milk or dairy products are a good choice for you, please consult a registered dietitian.
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