Ah, cheese. Whether you prefer it ooey-gooey or uber-pungent, most folks would agree cheese is delish. But cheese also gets a bad rap as a food people are quick to label “unhealthy.”
Here’s the Gouda news: Cheese is generally considered a whole food that’s good for you in moderation and offers a healthy dose of nutrients.
But cheese nutrition is complicated. Most cheese is high in calories, protein, fat, calcium, and sodium. But the nutrition varies based on type, production, and aging, so the only way to pick the healthiest cheese for you is to read the nutrition facts.
And, like any food, you can eat too much of a good-for-you food (the cheese plate was really asking for it).
Let’s dive into the science of cheese nutrition.
Every member of the fromage fam contains fat, protein, calcium, and sodium. But there are hundreds of cheeses. Each wedge’s nutritional content varies based on:
- the type of milk used (cow, goat, or sheep?)
- how it’s made
- how old it is (aged cheese is a divine experience of its own 🤤)
Here’s the nutritional breakdown of 100-gram (3.5-ounce) servings of common cheeses. That’s usually about a 1-inch cube of cheese.
While the nutrients within each cheese category vary — ricotta is more calorie-dense than feta, for instance — the delegates above can help us understand how each type stacks up.
In a slice-to-slice scrum, here’s how the cheese categories stack up.
- For protein, it’s a draw. Firm, aged Parmesan contains the most protein, but it’s not the only protein-laden cheese. Even soft, gooey mozzarella is a great source of protein.
- For calcium, opt for hard cheese. Parmesan wins this one, hands down. While all cheese includes calcium, hard cheese tends to have more than soft cheese.
- For healthy fat, go for the soft stuff. TBH, semi-firm Swiss and pasteurized American have the most total fat, but that’s not the whole picture. Swiss is healthier because it’s lower in sodium. And overall, high moisture cheeses like cottage cheese, ricotta, and mozzarella contain nourishing fats with less saturated fat, which might be a better health measure.
- For sodium, hard Parm takes the cake. But is this a battle you wanna win? Hard cheeses contain less moisture, so they can be a bit salt-heavy. Other sodium-soaked options include halloumi, Camembert, mascarpone, brie, and processed cheese.
TBH, labeling food as “good” or “bad” is so “2000 and late.” A 2014 study even said that attaching guilt to certain foods can make you less likely to lose weight. So staaaahp villainizing cheese and make peace with Parm, OK?!
Still, some foods do benefit your body more than others. Cheese lands somewhere in the middle. It’s chockablock with protein, healthy fats, and calcium. It’s also loaded with calories and sodium. The trick is to consume cheese in moderation as part of a diverse daily diet full of nutrient-dense foods.
Cheese can be less helpful in certain scenarios, including:
- You’re trying to eat fewer calories. No matter how you slice it, cheese is high cal. If you’re trying to lose weight by creating a calorie deficit, trade out the chili con queso for eggplant dip.
- You have high blood pressure. A 2014 survey linked high sodium to high blood pressure. If you have blood pressure concerns, noshing on salty cheese may not be a great option for your health.
- You’re dealing with cardiovascular disease. Cheese has a lot of fat. The American Heart Association (AHA) says dialing down your saturated fat intake can improve heart health. Of course, cheese has other nutrients too. Talk with your doc before nixing Neufchatel for the sake of your heart.
Here’s why your body might love this delectable dairy treat.
It’s full of nutrients
We’ve already mentioned how cheese contains fat, protein, and calcium. But dairy is also packed with anti-inflammatory-, vitamin D-, and immune system-supporting B vitamins.
But the best way to consume alllll the nutrients is to eat a diverse array of fruits, veggies, and whole grains alongside your favorite cheese.
It supports bone health
Calcium keeps your bones strong. And did you know that nearly 30 percent of Americans don’t get enough of the stuff? Cheese to the rescue!
All cheese has calcium. But if you wanna get the most bang for your bite, nosh on Parmesan and Swiss cheeses.
It could improve muscle strength and recovery
Yep, Gruyere = gainz. Same for Parmesan, mozzarella, and dozens of other creamy cheeses.
Dairy products like cheese nourish your body with amino acid-rich protein. Your body uses protein for everything from muscle recovery to injury repair.
Ounce for ounce, Parmesan packs in the most protein.
It’s good for your teeth
Here’s a reason to offer cubed cheese instead of cupcakes at your next party: A 2013 study showed that the more dairy you eat, the less plaque you might have on your teeth.
Beyond that, calcium and protein are great for your smile. A 2015 study suggested that calcium might even prevent cavities.
For a killer combo of calcium and protein with very little tooth-decaying sugar, stock up on Swiss cheese.
It might contain gut-supporting probiotics
For a hefty helping of probiotics, reach for aged cheese, since probiotics are found in a variety of fermented foods. The idea behind upping your consumption is that the more good bacteria you add to your gut, the healthier your digestion might be. But know that it’s possible to take too many probiotics. Side effects are minimal but can include gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc.
Both hard and soft cheeses contain probiotics. They’re found in cheddar, mozzarella, cottage cheese, and more.
It might contain anti-inflammatory CLA
Conjugated linoleic acid (code name: CLA) = a fatty acid found in high fat dairy products. Research shows that it might help protect you from heart disease, obesity, and other inflammatory conditions.
Dose on CLA with creamy cheeses like blue cheese, brie, and some cheddar.
Any food can cause issues, and cheese is no exception.
Cheese may not be great food option for you if:
- You’re sensitive to lactose. Being lactose intolerant means that your body can’t properly digest dairy products and milk. If that’s you, cheese can trigger gas, bloating, and other digestive woes.
- You’re allergic to casein. If you’re allergic to milk proteins like casein or whey, you shouldn’t eat cheese made from milk. But vegan cheese has come a long way!
- You’re dehydrated. Quench that thirst with water, not spray cheese. Noshing on fiber-less cheese when your body needs hydration is the stuff of bathroom nightmares.
- You’re prone to constipation. Cheese can slow down an already sluggish digestive system. No fiber, no movement. Of course, it’s unlikely that chronic constipation would be caused by cheese alone. If you’re backed up for weeks, call a doctor.
Scientists say that, literally, every type of cheese has different requirements for optimum storage.
To keep it simple, we’ve rounded up a few general guidelines:
- Buy cheese that’s still fresh. That means no fuzz or funk.
- Wrap it up. While some cheese aficionados swear by waxed paper, plastic wrap and foil also work.
- Keep it cold. Your cheese should live in the fridge. Avoid leaving it out for more than 2 hours. (Hard, aged cheeses can be left out a bit longer.)
A few ways to eat cheese in the healthiest way possible:
- Eat it with other nutrient-dense foods. Charcuterie with fruit and whole-grain crackers, anyone?
- Eat it in moderation. A doctor or dietitian can help you suss out the right amount of dairy for you. In general, treat it as a treat — not the main dish.
- Eat more low fat cheeses. As a rule of thumb, the USDA suggests eating lower fat cheeses like part-skim mozz or reduced-fat cheddar. But since dietary suggestions aren’t a one-size-fits-all deal, run this past your doc before ditching full-fat dairy.
- Watch your sodium intake. That brick of ultra-processed cheese? It’s a salt lick. If you occasionally enjoy salty processed cheeses, dial down your other sodium sources for the day.
- Cheese isn’t a “health” food, but that doesn’t make it bad.
- Cheese nutrition varies according to the type of cheese and its production process.
- You can get a hefty dose of protein, fat, and calcium from cheese.
- You might also get a little too much sodium and saturated fat.
- Most folks can enjoy a variety of cheese in moderation without any side effects or risks.
- If your body reacts negatively to cheese, tell your doctor. You might be allergic to lactose or casein.