According to Science (+8 Delicious Recipes)
Today’s blog post is a guest column from “Jen Reviews.” We’ve talked before about how healthy cheese can be, but Jen has compiled all the feel-good reasons in one place.
Cheese making has been in practice for over 8,000 years by various cultures around the world. Throughout history, many animals have been valued for their milk, including camels, bison, goats, and yaks. Today, the majority of dairy production comes from cow’s milk, increasing by 50% over the last 40 years. While the percentage of milk consumption in liquid form has decreased, the popularity of cheese has been on the rise, with each person eating an average of 34 pounds a year as of 2012 (1).
However, not all cheeses are created equal. Most cheeses get a bad rap. We hear about how it is unhealthy, negatively contributing to our waistline and increasing the number on the scale. While all cheeses should be eaten in moderation, there are some that are a good addition to your shopping list, including swiss, feta, part-skim mozzarella, parmesan, and cottage cheese (2). These are a great source of many essential vitamins and minerals, and can help you avoid common health issues.
1. Cheese Can Prevent Osteoporosis
Our parents always instructed us to drink our milk as children, telling us that the calcium and vitamin D would help us to build strong bones. The truth is our bone mass continues to grow throughout childhood and adolescence, reaching its peak density around age 30. From there, the aging process begins to thin our bones over time. It is easy to see that the greater your bone density is at this point, the less effect aging will have on your skeletal integrity.
Unfortunately, inadequate bone mass can contribute to the development of osteoporosis later in life. Osteoporosis is a disease characterized by fragile, porous bones, and it affects over 10 million Americans, 80% of which are women. It is the leading cause of fractures, with 1.5 million estimated each year (particularly in the wrist, hip, or vertebrae). The cause can be attributed to low consumption or poor absorption of calcium, which causes the bones to slowly break down (3).
Balanced nutrition can help you avoid the development of osteoporosis. You need to ensure you are receiving adequate amounts or protein, calcium, and vitamin D. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends a minimum daily intake of 400 to 500 mg of calcium per day for people over 50 and at risk for fractures (4). Dairy products, particularly cheese fortified with vitamin D, can be a great way to consume the correct balance of vitamins and minerals.
Bottom Line: Increasing your calcium and protein intake with cheese can keep your bones strong, and help prevent osteoporosis.
2. Cheese Can Have a Positive Effect on Your Dental Health
A study done by dental professionals showed that eating cheese might help to prevent dental cavities. Four groups were tested, consuming milk, sugar-free yogurt, paraffin, and cheese, and the pH balance in various areas of their mouths were tested before and after consumption. A pH level lower than 5.5 can leave your teeth at risk for erosion due to acids created in your mouth. While the groups who drank milk, and ate paraffin and sugar-free yogurt showed no significant change, the group who ate cheese experienced an increase in pH levels (5).
The findings may be the result of increased saliva production, due to chewing, which protects teeth from erosion. It could also be that certain components of the cheese adhered to the teeth, protecting them from acid. Either way, your teeth are made up of the same substances as your bones. Just as cheese is beneficial for your bone health, it can also have positive effects on your dental health.
Bottom Line: Cheese can keep your teeth strong and prevent expensive dental work that results from decay.
3. Cheese Consumption Can Help You Gain Weight in a Healthy Way
To most people, the idea of gaining weight is not something to be looked at favorably. For some, weight gain is a necessity for various reasons. Actors and athletes may need to bulk up for an upcoming role or game season, or a child may be underweight for their age, according to their pediatrician.
For those looking to gain weight, there is a right and a wrong way to do so. You do not want to put your health at risk by choosing the wrong foods. With its fat and protein content, plus the various vitamins and minerals it contains, cheese is a great choice for gaining weight in a healthy manner (6).
You do need to be careful about how much cheese you eat, as it can take you too far to the opposite extreme on the weight chart. It is a very energy-dense food, containing a lot of calories per gram. Common cheeses, like goat, gouda, and parmesan, contain over 100 calories per gram. Eating a diet mainly consisting of foods high in energy density can lead to obesity. Try to balance your cheese intake with low energy-dense foods, like fruits and vegetables (7).
Bottom Line: If your doctor has said that you or your child needs to gain weight, cheese can be a healthy way to achieve this.
4. Cheese is the Best Dietary Source for Calcium
The most abundant mineral in the body, calcium is a necessity for life. It regulates vascular function, nerve transmission, muscle function, and hormone secretion. While only 1% of the calcium in the body is necessary for these functions, the other 99% is stored in the bones.
Your bones go through constant remodeling throughout your life. The balance between breakdown and formation changes over time, with the formation greatly outweighing breakdown in childhood, vice versa in older adults, and a balance between the two in adolescence and early adulthood (8).
Our bodies cannot create new calcium, and we lose calcium every day through our dead skin cells, nails and hair, sweat, and excrement. It is important to get your recommended daily calcium (roughly 1,000 mg for the average adult (9)), as the calcium we do not receive through our food is then taken from our bones, leaving them prone to breaking down and vulnerable to fractures (10).
Bottom Line: Cheese is the best way, without supplementation, to receive your recommended daily intake of calcium.
5. Cheese is an Excellent Source of Protein
Responsible for the formation, regulation, repair, and protection of the body, protein is a necessity in our diets, giving you a strong immune system, healthy hair, and proper fluid balance in your body. Without proper protein intake, you are at risk for fluid retention and shrinkage of muscular tissue.
Your body does not store protein. Because of this, your daily food consumption should contain adequate amounts of protein. About 2-3 servings of protein-rich foods (such as meat and dairy) per day is adequate for most adults to meet the requirement (11).
While most cheeses are an excellent source of protein, low moisture-content cheeses are your best choice. If you are looking for the best cheesy source of protein, Parmesan is the one for you. It is the highest protein-content cheese, with 10 grams per ounce. Stay away from “wet” cheeses, like cottage, ricotta, and other cheese spreads if you are looking for protein content. These are very low in protein and high in fat (12).
Bottom Line: Cheese can help you receive your daily amounts of protein, giving you leaner muscle and healthier skin and hair.
6. Cheese is High in Vitamin B12
Vitamin B-12 (also known as Cobalamin) is the largest and most complex vitamin discovered to this day. It aids in the production of red blood cells, protein, and DNA, as well as promotes many mental health functions. Vitamin B-12 anemia, or pernicious anemia, is the result of a deficiency which can lead to lethargy, muscles weakness, and, in long-term, severe cases, neurological damage (13).
This essential vitamin can only be found, naturally, in animal products, or synthetically in supplements. It can be consumed in large doses with no ill side-effects. The excess merely gets stored away in the body until it is needed, and can be stored up to a year (14).
Many cheeses provide an excellent source of natural vitamin B-12. Amongst all cheeses, Swiss has been found to have the highest B-12 content, with 0.95 micrograms per ounce. That’s about 39% of your recommended daily intake. Even the cheeses with the lowest content, cheddar and Monterey, still offer 10% of your B-12 requirement in one ounce (15).
Bottom Line: Choosing cheeses, like Swiss, can energize you and keep your nervous system healthy through vitamin B-12.
7. Cheese Can Reverse Hypertension by Lowering Blood Pressure
There have been links found between a diet that contains dairy and lower blood pressure. It is believed that the increased calcium intake is what is ultimately responsible. There was a study done in which two groups, one who ate only fruits and vegetables and the other included low-fat dairy products, were tested. It was found that the group that included dairy showed overall decreased blood pressure.
Those with hypertension may find that their systolic blood pressure lowered by 2-4 mmHg by including certain cheeses in their diet (16). However, you do still need to be aware of your sodium intake, not exceeding 1,500 mg per day. Choose low-sodium cheeses by checking the packaging labels. Balancing your diet with foods high in potassium can help to reduce your sodium level as well (17). So, why not top that potato with some cheddar?
Bottom Line: Pairing low-sodium cheeses with potassium-rich foods can lower your blood pressure and reverse hypertension.
8. Cheese Provides the Essential Fat, CLA
Conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, is a complex compound that does not get enough credit. With the trend of low-fat, no-fat diets, the intake of CLA amongst most Americans is very low. It is an essential, “healthy” fat that is commonly found in dairy and meat, primarily from grass-fed cows, sheep, and goats (18).
With the help of CLA, you can experience a loss of body fat and build lean muscle. It also plays a vital role in supporting the immune and inflammatory systems, improving bone mass, regulating blood sugar levels, and reducing your risk of heart disease.
Cheese made from milk from grass-fed cows tends to be high in CLA’s. The amount of CLA in these cheeses tend to increase with the amount of fresh grass eaten. Therefore, when cows have access year-round to fresh grass, you can have as much as 30 mg of CLA per ounce of cheese produced (19).
Bottom Line: Grass-fed cheeses are rich in CLA, which can regulate your blood sugar and reduce your risk of heart failure.
9. Cheese Can Help Prevent Common Cancers
There’s no doubt about it: cancer runs rampant throughout our population. Colorectal cancer is amongst the most common in the world, affecting the colon and digestive tract. Many complications come along with colorectal cancer, including abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, rectal bleeding, and, if undiagnosed, can lead to death in the long-run (20).
While many studies have shown mixed results when it comes to dairy consumption and cancer risk, there has been some evidence that shows milk and cheese can prevent some common cancers, such as colorectal and bladder. There are many factors to consider when it comes to diet and cancer prevention. When it comes to cheese and other dairy products, it is believed that the calcium, vitamin D, and lactic acid can potentially protect you from these cancers (21, 22).
Bottom Line: The calcium content in cheese can potentially help prevent common cancers, like colorectal.
10. Cheese is Plentiful in Healthy Fats
Once upon a time, we were told that fat was evil, causing us to be obese and clogging up our precious arteries. Thus, the low-fat, no-fat diets began to roll out, resulting in a population that was overweight and very sick.
Now we know that fats are essential to a healthy diet. They help to keep you full, so you eat less, and are necessary to help your body absorb certain vitamins. It is still only recommended that 10% or less of your daily calories should come from fat, and you should be selective with where your fats come from and what type of fats you choose.
Unsaturated fats are the best for you. These are typically found in nuts and fish. Saturated fats can also be good, but in moderation. These are often solid at room temperature, and are found in animal products, like meat, butter, and cheese, and certain oils, like coconut and palm. Trans fats should be avoided altogether, being undeniably the worst fat for your heart and found in fried foods and packaged snacks.
Cheese, in moderation, can help you get these necessary fats into your diet. Try choosing aged cheeses, like parmesan, and using it as a garnish to salads. The fats in the cheese will help keep you full and help your body absorb the vitamins in your vegetables (23).
Bottom Line: We now know that fats are essential in our diets, and cheese is a good source of healthy dietary fats.
11. Cheese is a Good Choice for Pregnant Women
Preeclampsia affects 5 to 8% of pregnant women in America. It is a condition in which a woman develops hypertension in pregnancy, and can have a serious impact on her unborn child, including death. Through various studies and research, it has been shown, however, that calcium supplementation, receiving between 1,500 and 2,000 mg per day, during pregnancy can greatly reduce a woman’s risk of developing preeclampsia (24).
With its calcium content, cheese is a good choice for the pregnant woman’s diet. Not only is it rich in calcium, but it can offer many other essential nutrients for pregnancy, including protein and B vitamins. However, there are many conflicting opinions on the consumption of cheese during pregnancy, and these need to be taken into consideration.
Some soft cheeses, due to their moisture content, can be the perfect environment for bacteria to grow. One of these bacteria, listeria, is especially dangerous for pregnant women and their fetuses. Listeriosis can produce symptoms similar to that of food poisoning, and the bacterial infection can even result in fetal death (25).
If you do choose to eat soft cheese, make sure it is in cooked food. The heat will help to kill the bacteria, making it safer for pregnant women to eat. If you really desire to eat cheese, but you are afraid of the risk of listeriosis, choose hard cheeses instead, like gouda, cheddar, and parmesan. These are usually made with pasteurized milk and cooked at high temperatures, which kill any existing bacteria (26).
Bottom Line: With proper choices and preparation, cheese can be a good choice for pregnant women to receive vitamins and minerals necessary for healthy fetal development.
12. Cheese Helps You Build Muscle
We all know how difficult it can be to lose weight, but for some people, it can be just as hard to put on muscle. Adding certain foods to your diet, however, can help you gain weight and bulk up. Cheese can effectively help you build muscle, due to its fat and protein content (27).
Cottage cheese is easily the cheapest addition to your diet that can help you build muscle. Per serving (about 4 ounces), you get 13 grams of protein, 5 grams of fat (in regular cottage cheese, not low- or no-fat), and 4 grams of carbs. It is a popular choice amongst many athletes and body builders, as the whey and casein protein keeps their muscles lean and aids in post-workout recovery (28).
Bottom Line: With the protein, fat, and carbs in cheese, you can gain weight and build muscle with ease.
13. Cheese Benefits the Immune System
Immunoesenescene is a disease that plagues the elderly, attacking their immune system, leading to its deterioration. It makes it harder for their bodies to fight cancerous cells and respond to immunizations and vaccines, leaving them more susceptible to cancer and infectious diseases.
Recent research, however, has shown that cheese, fortified with probiotic bacteria, can help boost the immune system and prevent immunosenescene. Probiotics are similar to the bacteria found in the human gut, where the majority of the immune system is located. Scientists, therefore, decided to target this area for their research.
A group of volunteers in a nursing home, between the ages of 72 and 103, were observed over a period of four weeks. One group was given a placebo cheese, and the other was given probiotic-rich gouda. At the end of the period, it was clear that natural and acquired immunity was improved in the group who ate the probiotic-fortified gouda (29, 30).
Bottom Line: Cheese, especially gouda, can improve the immune system by introducing gut-healthy probiotics to your body.
14. Cheese is Abundant in the Vital Vitamin K2
Vitamin K is well-known for the role it plays in helping your blood to clot, but there are a few forms of vitamin K. Vitamin K2 doesn’t get as much attention as K1, which is the K vitamin responsible for blood coagulation (called Koagulationsvitamin, understandably). It is believed to be the “unsung hero” when it comes to the prevention of some common diseases (31).
This vitamin works hand-in-hand with other vitamins and nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D. It benefits your bone, skin, and dental health, by transporting and depositing these essential vitamins and minerals to these areas. It can help prevent dementia in the elderly by promoting healthy brain function. It can even prevent, and possibly treat, common cancers, like leukemia (32).
Many Americans (about 80%), and other Western populations, are believed to not get enough of this magical vitamin. The optimum recommended intake is still inconclusive, but it is believed that 180 to 200 mcg per day will be enough to get those vitamin-transporting proteins working. Hard cheeses, have adequate amounts of vitamin K2, offering over 30% more than soft cheeses, and amongst these, gouda and brie boast the highest amounts, at about 75 mcg per ounce (33, 34).
Bottom Line: Vitamin K2 is a miracle vitamin, believed to help prevent many common diseases, and gouda cheese is an excellent source for this vitamin.
15. Cheese is Good for Your Thyroid Health
Your thyroid, a small, butterfly-shaped gland in your neck, is probably not something you think about often, but it should receive special attention when it comes to your health. The hormones it produces regulate nearly all of the body’s metabolic functions. Too much (hyperthyroidism) or too little (hypothyroidism) production of these hormones can set your body off balance.
A thyroid disorder can have a vast array of symptoms. These include weight gain, fatigue, and infertility with hypothyroidism, and anxiety, insomnia, and rapid weight loss with hyperthyroidism. Both are cause for concern, and can lead to more serious problems in the future.
More than 30 million Americans suffer from a thyroid disorder, and over half of them are undiagnosed. Chances are even higher of an issue developing with your thyroid if you are female, making it about 30% more likely (35, 36).
There are many things you can do to prevent developing a thyroid disorder, such as nutrition. Selenium is an essential mineral, as there are many benefits that result from daily intake. You can experience boosted immunity, as it counteracts the development of viruses, and it regulates thyroid function by aiding in the production of thyroid hormones (37).
Changing your diet can be the first step to avoiding a thyroid disorder. Adding cheese to your diet can help. Hard cheeses, like cheddar, can be a great source of selenium. In a 100-g serving, you can get over 50% of your recommended daily value (38).
Bottom Line: Adding cheddar, and other hard cheeses, to your diet can reduce your risk of developing a thyroid disorder by keeping your hormones in balance.
We all love cheese, and it’s easy to find many fattening, soul-soothing recipes. If you need your cheese fix, try these healthier alternatives.
1. Loaded Cauliflower
With all of the cheesy goodness this dish has to offer, you can enjoy your favorite comfort food without even noticing you’re eating vegetables.
In a microwave-safe bowl, combine either a whole head of cauliflower (then cutting it into florets) or a pound of pre-cut cauliflower and 2 tablespoons of water, cover with clear wrap, and microwave for 5-8 minutes, until tender. Drain the excess water and allow to cool for a few minutes.
Transfer the cauliflower to a food processor and blend until fluffy. Add ¼ teaspoon of garlic powder, 3 tablespoons of butter, and 4 ounces of sour cream. Blend again until the mixture looks like mashed potatoes.
In your serving dish, combine the cauliflower mixture and about 2 tablespoons of snipped chives, and mix in a ½ cup of shredded cheddar. Season with salt and pepper. Top the mixture with another ½ cup of shredded cheddar.
Pop it back in the microwave for a few minutes or put it under your broiler to allow the cheese to melt. Sprinkle on some chopped chives and serve.
2. Spaghetti Squash with Bacon, Spinach, and Goat Cheese
With the gluten-free trend on the rise, this recipe is a great trend for those looking for pasta without the carbs.
Preheat the oven to 400°F and line a baking pan with either parchment paper or foil. Prep your spaghetti squash by cutting off both ends, slicing it into 1-inch thick rings, and cutting out the seeds in the middle. Drizzle oil onto your lined baking pan, and spread out the squash rings, making sure both sides are coated with olive oil and seasoned with salt and pepper. Allow to bake for about 30 minutes, and cool for 10 minutes when it is finished.
Heat a large pan and cook about 6 strips of bacon (cut into 1 inch pieces) until it is browned and crispy. At this point, stir in a tablespoon of red wine vinegar (which will help to deglaze your pan and loosen any stuck pieces of bacon) and a tablespoon of maple syrup. Add a bag of fresh spinach to the pan, one handful at a time, while stirring over low heat. Once the spinach is wilted, remove from heat.
Peel the skin from your squash, then, using a fork or your fingers, separate the “spaghetti” strands. Add the squash to your skillet and toss together.
Top with goat cheese crumbles and serve warm.
3. Spinach and Goat Cheese Frittata
Add a little bit of cheesy goodness to your brunch with this recipe.
Preheat your oven to 400°F. In an oven-proof skillet, heat olive oil and add 6 slices of pancetta. Cook over medium-high heat until crispy. Allow to cool on a separate plate before crumbling into small pieces.
Slice up a small leek (length-wise then into ½ inch pieces) and add it to your pan. Cook over low heat until soft and slightly browned. Add a cup of fresh spinach and cook until wilted. Remove the leek and spinach mixture from the pan and allow to sit with the pancetta.
Beat 8 large eggs and add them to the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and cooking for about a minute. Spread the pancetta, leek, and spinach mixture over the eggs and top with about a ½ cup of goat cheese crumbles.
Bake for a few minutes until the frittata is set. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.
4. Skinny Mac and Cheese
Looking for some comfort food without the guilt? This mac and cheese recipe is sure to hit the spot.
Grate about a pound and a half of cauliflower (either a head cut into florets or pre-cut) into a large bowl. Measure out about 3 cups of the grated cauliflower and add to a slow cooker or Dutch oven with 2 cups of elbow macaroni and 2 cloves of sliced garlic.
In a separate bowl, whisk together 1 ½ cups of chicken broth, ½ cup of milk, and 2 tablespoons of flour. Pour the mixture over the cauliflower and macaroni, stirring everything together. Allow to cook until macaroni is tender. Stir in 1 ½ cups of grated cheddar cheese and a cup of low-fat Greek yogurt.
Top with more shredded cheddar, if you so desire, and salt and pepper, melting the cheese before serving.
5. Parmesan Kale Grilled Cheese
This healthy spin on classic grilled cheese is sure to satisfy even the pickiest of eaters.
Preheat your indoor grill or panini press (you can also use a grill pan on your stove). On a slice of bread, crumble a half-ounce of sliced parmesan and sprinkle hemp seeds and garlic powder. Top with sliced kale, another half-ounce of parmesan, slices of another cheese of your choice (something that will easily melt).
Lay your second slice of bread on top and place in grill or panini press and close. Allow to cook for a few minutes, until cheese is melted and grill marks are visible. Serve warm.
6. Parmesan Roasted Zucchini
Why eat French fries when you can enjoy this healthy and delicious alternative?
Preheat oven to 350°F and line a baking sheet with foil. Slice about 4 to 5 zucchinis into wedges (quarter them length-wise). In a separate bowl, mix together 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the zest of a lemon, and 2 cloves of garlic (minced).
Spread your zucchini slices on your lined baking sheet and brush with your olive oil mixture. Sprinkle with shredded parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Allow to bake for a few minutes, until zucchini is tender, then allow to broil until the parmesan is golden in color.
Serve as a snack or a side with your favorite dish.
7. Cottage Cheese Chicken Enchiladas
Instead of taco night, try serving up these creamy enchiladas with a twist.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Shred two chicken breasts, and combine it with ½ cup of chopped onion, and a can of chopped green chile peppers in an oiled pan. Sauté the mixture until brown, then add taco seasoning following the package directions.
In a large bowl, mix together ½ cup of sour cream, 2 cups of cottage cheese, and season with salt and pepper. In 6-inch soft tortillas, place a spoonful of your chicken mix, a spoonful of your cheese mix, and some shredded cheese, roll them up, and place them in a greased baking dish. Pour over enchilada sauce and sprinkle on shredded cheddar.
Allow to bake for about 30 minutes, until cheese is melted on top, and serve with Spanish rice.
8. Reuben Dip
Enjoy all the flavor of your favorite sandwich in this easy to make snack.
Preheat your oven to 350°F. Combine together a package of cream cheese (room temperature), ½ cup of mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons of ketchup, 1 tablespoon of horseradish, and 1 tablespoon of relish in a food processor, and blend until smooth.
Stir in 2 cups of grated Swiss cheese, 2 ounces of chopped corned beef, ½ cup of sauerkraut, and ¼ cup of chopped chives. Transfer to a baking dish, and allow to bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, until the dip is hot and bubbly.
Serve with pieces of toasted pumpernickel bread.