We know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t cheese packed with calories and fat?” And while the answer is yes, cheese can be high in calories and fat from dairy products, it’s also a food that can absolutely be part of a well-balanced diet.
When it comes to choosing cheese, you simply want to skip the bricks of processed options and plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese and go for options that offer a few more bodily benefits per delicious bite.
Considering the average American eats nearly 37 pounds of cheese a year, according to USDA 2017 data, you could also learn a little more about how to get the most out of every ounce and how to include cheese in your performance fuel plate. Here’s what you need to know about choosing the healthiest cheese and the benefits of making it.
How is cheese made?
Cheese is made from milk, salt, “good” bacteria that trigger fermentation, and the enzyme rennet, according to the National Dairy Council. Each cheesemaker can add additional ingredients and has a different aging method, hence the variety in nutritional information, flavors and textures of the cheese.
Three main details of processing influence those attributes of the cheese:
- The type of milk: cow’s milk errs on the buttery, rich side; goat’s milk is strong and pungent; sheep’s milk is nutty and smooth
- Where is it done: weather patterns, the animal’s diet, the timing of milking and more all affect the flavor of a finished cheese
- The consistency: meteroisture (the humidity of the aging environment) and the aging process itself affects the texture of the cheese.
There are six main categories of cheese:
- Hard: Aged Gouda, Aged Cheddar, Asiago, Grana Padano, Manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino
- Semi-hard: colby, gouda, gruyere, havarti, mild cheddar
- White mold: brie cheese, camembert
- Blue mold: gorgonzola, stilton, roquefort
- Fresh: burrata, cream cheese, feta, fresh mozzarella
- Goat: blue goat, chevre, brie goat
What are the health benefits of cheese?
Eating cheese offers some advantages for your health:
- Good source of calcium
- Good source of protein
- Mature cheeses contain probiotics, which promote intestinal health
- Whole milk can offer anti-inflammatory benefits
- Lower risk of caries
- Supports bone and muscle health, thanks to calcium, vitamins A, vitamin D, vitamin K and zinc
Plus, there’s a fun factor that comes with eating cheese, considering how delicious it is, says Michelle Hyman, RD, a registered dietitian in Simple solutions to lose weight In New York.
What to look for in a healthy cheese
In general, you’ll get the most satisfaction and nutrition per bite by opting for any real cheese. Those made with 100 percent grass-fed milk often contain more of a certain type of omega-3 fatty acid called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Adequate intake of this healthy fat could lower risk of cardiovascular diseaseHe says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDNa Dobbs Ferry, New York-based nutrition expert and author of The smoothie plan.
Most varieties of cheese average around 100 calories per ounce, which means they are fairly calorie-dense and offer a lot of energy for a small amount of food. That’s good for cyclists, considering you need calories for energy to go on long rides.
Sodium is also a nutrient to consider in cheese, as many varieties can contain salt. Hyman suggests aiming for less than 200 milligrams of sodium if you’ve been diagnosed with or have a family history of high blood pressure. (Some varieties of cheese have more than double that amount per serving.) However, sodium is also an electrolyte, so it’s okay to eat a little sodium, especially if you’re sweating a lot.
Finally, in general, you want to watch your intake of saturated fat, which you’ll find in many cheeses. Too much saturated fat can increase bad cholesterol and potentially harm heart health. The American Heart Association recommends keeping your saturated fat intake between 5 and 6 percent of your daily calories.
Otherwise, shop for one or all of these healthier cheese options during your next trip to the grocery store.
5 of the healthiest cheeses to buy
Product-specific nutrition information can vary for these cheeses, based on brand, age and more, so consider these USDA FoodData Central macronutrient and micronutrient estimates as a general guide.
Highest in Protein: Cottage Cheese
Surprisingly versatile—try it in everything from lasagna casseroles to smoothies and parfaits—cottage cheese tops the fromage competition in terms of muscle-building power.
Nutritional information Per ½ cup serving of 2% cottage cheese:
- Calories: 92
- Fat: 3g (1g saturated fat)
- Protein: 12g
- Carbs: 5g
- Sodium: 348mg
- Sugars: 4.5g
- Calcium: 125mg
Lowest in saturated fat: mozzarella
Aside from cottage cheese, this salad star and pizza hero ranks lowest in saturated fat if you opt for its part-skim version that still packs a rich punch, says Hyman.
Nutritional information Per 1-ounce serving of part-skim mozzarella cheese:
- Calories: 72
- Fat: 4.5g (3g saturated fat)
- Protein: 7g
- Carbs: 1g
- Sodium: 348mg
- Sugars: 0.5g
- Calcium: 222mg
Highest in Calcium: Parmesan
A little Parmesan cheese goes a long way, especially if you’re looking for well-aged versions of the cheese. It offers a lot of nutty flavor per bite, plus lots of calcium.
Nutritional information for a 1-ounce serving of Parmesan cheese:
- Calories: 111
- Fat: 7g (4g saturated fat)
- Protein: 10g
- Carbs: 1g
- Sodium: 335mg
- Sugars: 0g
- Calcium: 335mg
Lowest in lactose: goat cheese
Goat cheese contains casein A2, a form of milk protein that may cause fewer digestive problems than the casein found naturally in cow’s milk. (More and more A2 cow milks are entering the market, but these are the exception rather than the rule.)
Nutritional information for a 1-ounce serving of soft goat cheese:
- Calories: 75
- Fat: 6g (4g saturated fat)
- Protein: 5g
- Carbs: 0g
- Sodium: 130mg
- Sugars: 0g
- Calcium: 40mg
Lowest Sodium: Swiss
No, this is not just about the holes! Ounce for ounce, Swiss cheese ranks as the healthiest cheese if you look at your sodium intake.
Nutritional information for a 1-ounce serving of Swiss cheese:
- Calories: 111
- Fat: 9g (5g saturated fat)
- Protein: 8g
- Carbs: 0g
- Sodium: 53mg
- Sugars: 0g
- Calcium: 252mg
How to add cheese to a healthy diet
The current USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest adults ages 19-59 eat the equivalent of 3 cups of dairy per day, regardless of the total calories in their daily diet.
“However, that does not mean that the guidelines recommend that all of its dairy equivalents come from cheese. The equivalent of 1 cup of cheese is listed as 1.5 ounces of natural cheese,” says Hyman. “The guidelines primarily recommend low-fat or nonfat dairy options.”
In addition to cheese and milk, yogurt and soy milk also count as dairy equivalents, so try mixing things up and eat no more than one serving of these healthier cheeses per day.
“One serving a day can definitely fit into a healthy eating pattern,” says Largeman-Roth. “Cheese is so tasty that it doesn’t take much to kick-start a meal.”
Here’s how to include these healthier cheeses as part of your meal plan:
- Add slices to a cheese board along with fruit, nuts, jams, mustards, olives, and crackers.
- Use cheese as a garnish for pasta, salad, or soup, or as a topping for a veggie-laden pizza
- Combine a wedge with a piece of fruit for a snack.
- Create a box lunch with cubes of cheese, whole grain crackers, hummus and crudites
- Stir crumbled cheese into a frittata or scrambled eggs
- Cheese layer inside a whole wheat sandwich
- Blend a tablespoon of cottage cheese into a smoothie or add marinara sauce to enjoy with pasta
Is there anyone who shouldn’t eat cheese?
Some people are allergic to a dairy protein called casein. A typical reaction involves rashes, acne, headaches, nasal congestion, and inflammation. If this sounds like you, talk to your doctor about possible allergies.
Of course those with lactose intoleranceI also want to avoid certain cheeses. Lactose intolerance refers to when the body has difficulty breaking down or digesting the lactose in a dairy product. This tends to trigger more digestive problems after consuming dairy products, such as bloating, gas, and diarrhea.
If you really love cheese but have been diagnosed with or think you might have lactose intolerance, take heed: “Certain cheeses can be tolerated in varying amounts depending on the individual, as they contain less lactose than others,” explains Hyman.
For example, “old cheese it’s much lower in lactose, so many people who can’t tolerate fluid milk or soft cheese can eat aged cheeses, like cheddar, with no problem,” says Largeman-Roth.
The bottom line on the healthiest cheese for cyclists
While full-fat dairy products, including cheese, can be high in saturated fat and sodium, they do provide enough positive qualities to have a place on your plate, at least in moderation. Aim for one serving per day, which is equal to 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, ¼ cup of ricotta cheese, or ½ cup of cottage cheese, and combine it with high-fiber carbohydrates to improve the satiety factor and aid in digestion.
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