So cheese might not be a cholesterol worry, it offers important nutrients, and it can promote gut health. But wait, there’s more good news: Cheese seems to reduce the risk of weight gain (really) and several chronic diseases.
Weight gain: Cheese is a concentrated source of calories. “That’s why portions of cheese should be smaller compared to something like milk or yogurt,” says Young at New York University. Still, studies suggest that you don’t need to skip cheese to keep the scale steady. In one, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers set out to determine which foods were linked to weight gain by following 120,877 men and women in the US for 20 years, looking at their weight every four years. While they found that consuming more of certain foods, like refined grains (as in white bread), was associated with weight gain, eating more of others, like nuts, actually helped with weight loss. Cheese wasn’t associated with either gain or loss, even for people who increased the amount of it they ate during the study. Another review published in the journal Molecular Nutrition & Food Research in 2018 found that people who ate dairy, including cheese, weighed more than those who didn’t, but the dairy eaters had less body fat and more lean body mass, which is beneficial to health.
One reason cheese may help control weight is that it may reduce appetite more than other dairy products. In a small study, researchers measured appetite and the levels of four hormones that control hunger in the blood of 31 people after theyate cheese, sour cream, whipped cream, or butter. Among those foods, cheese caused a greater rise in two of the hormones that help you feel full.
Cardiovascular disease: A large meta-analysis of 15 studies published in the European Journal of Nutrition that looked at cheese’s impact on cardiovascular disease found that people eating the most (1.5 ounces per day) had a 10 percent lower risk than those who didn’t eat any. Other analyzes have found that cheese doesn’t seem to affect heart disease risk either way. While many of these studies are observational, which means they don’t show cause and effect, together “the research suggests you don’t need to avoid cheese if you’re concerned about LDL cholesterol levels or heart disease,” Feeney says.
Diabetes and hypertension: Cheese and full-fat dairy also seem to be linked to a lower risk of both. In a study of more than 145,000 people in 21 countries, the researchers found that eating two servings of full-fat dairy or a mix of full-fat and low-fat was linked to a 24 and 11 percent reduced risk of both conditions compared with eating none. Eating only low-fat dairy slightly raised the risk. And among people who didn’t have diabetes or hypertension at the start of the nine-year study, those who ate two servings of dairy were less likely to develop the diseases during the study.
Lactose intolerance: Lactose, a sugar in milk, can be difficult for some people to digest, leading to diarrhea, bloating, and other gastrointestinal symptoms. But the bacteria used to make cheese digests most of the lactose in the milk, says Jamie Png of the American Cheese Society and a 12-year veteran of the cheese-making industry. Much of the lactose that remains is found in the whey, which gets separated from the curds toward the end of the cheese-making process and is drained off. “This means many types of cheese have very little to no lactose,” she says. “I’m a lactose-intolerant cheese maker, and my general rule is the higher in moisture a cheese is, the higher in lactose.” If you’re sensitive to lactose, stick to hard and/or aged cheese such as cheddar, provolone, Parmesan, blue, Camembert, and Gouda, and minimize fresh soft cheese like ricotta and cottage cheese. For instance, an ounce of cheddar has about 0.01 grams of lactose while a half-cup of cottage cheese has 3.2 grams. (A cup of whole milk has 12 grams.)