How to fit cheese into your healthy diet and stay guilt free
Tasty, delicious cheese has a couple of health drawbacks: saturated fat and salt. But don’t panic. Choosing your cheese carefully can mean you don’t have to cut out this simple pleasure.
In the world of healthy eating, cheese doesn’t look so good. Although it’s high in protein and calcium, which your body needs, those benefits come at a cost.
Just one slice of cheese can give you as much as 50% of your daily allowance of saturated fat and 25% of your allowance of salt. That can quickly add up, and eating too much of either fat or salt can increase your risk of cancer and heart disease.
So what’s the good news? Lindsey Wohlford, wellness dietitian at MD Anderson says you don’t have to eliminate cheese from your diet. Just focus on the type of cheese and the quantity.
“In most cases, stay away from low-fat or fat-free cheeses, because often they taste terrible and don’t satisfy your desire for cheese,” Wohlford says. These cheeses can also include more salt, sugar and other chemicals to make up for the loss of cheesy texture and flavor.
How to pick the healthiest cheese
Look for natural cheeses with a short list of whole food ingredients, says Wohlford. That’s because these cheeses will give you maximum nutritional value. Processed cheeses that include vegetable oils or artificial ingredients give you less of the good stuff – protein and calcium.
7 cheeses: Healthy or not?
Cheddar makes the healthy list because it's flavorful yet can be low in salt and high in calcium.
Blue cheese falls into the danger zone with high salt and not many benefits. It has low calcium and moderate protein.
Cream cheese sails to the top of the unhealthy list with three times the recommended daily amount of saturated fat per serving. It's also high salt.
The healthy soft cheese alternative is Ricotta. It's low in salt, high in calcium and has a lot of protein.
Parmesan gives you big benefits: High calcium and protein for a low saturated fat content. The cost is high salt.
American cheese is a health bust. As well as being highly processed, it has a lot of salt and not very much calcium or protein.
Leaving perhaps the healthiest until last. Feta cheese is low in salt and fat. SOURCE: USDA
Once you have found the natural cheeses, picking your type comes down to your goal.
If you’re trying to reduce sodium, some of the softer cheeses like ricotta, fresh mozzarella and cottage cheese may be better options. These cheeses also are a great source of protein and calcium. For lower fat, try goat cheese or feta.
When it comes to hard cheeses, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan and Parmagiano-Reggiano can be good choices. Even though they are higher in sodium, they can be lower in fat and you don’t need a lot of them to get the cheese fuzzies.
“These are full-flavor cheeses, so you can eat a smaller amount and still get that satisfying feeling that you ate cheese,” Wohlford says.
How much cheese is healthy?
The quantity of cheese you eat is important. The cold, hard truth is that a lot of cheese is not good for you.
As well as adding saturated fat and salt to your diet, more cheese also means more calories. And that introduces another danger to your health: weight gain.
Being overweight or obese increases your risk for 12 cancers, including colon, uterine and post-menopausal breast cancers.
For harder cheeses, the recommended serving size is 1 ounce – that's about one slice or a 1-inch by 1-inch cube. For softer cheeses like ricotta, a serving is between a half a cup and a cup, depending on the fat content. Check the nutrition label to be sure.
Wolford suggests you limit cheese to one serving a day, depending on what your nutrition goals are.
“Consider how cheese fits into your overall plan,” says Wohlford. “When it comes to how much cheese, there’s not an easy answer for all people.”
Bear in mind that you can get the benefits of cheese from other sources that come with extra good stuff and less of the bad. Canned salmon with bones is high in protein and calcium, but it has healthier fats.
The most important thing is to pay attention to what you’re eating.
“It’s when we’re grazing and not watching portion size that we run into problems. Those cheese trays at parties can be dangerous,” says Wohlford.