Not long ago, cheese’s reputation was in the gutter. The 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines highlighted cheese as the largest source of saturated fat in Americans’ diets and linked its consumption to an increased risk for heart disease.
“Cheese is generally high in cholesterol, saturated fat, and sodium,” says Michael Miller, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center. As a result of these attributes, a lot of doctors and dietitians used to tell people to eat cheese sparingly.
But like many other fatty foods, cheese is enjoying an image overhaul.
Research spanning the past decade indicates that cheese has either beneficial or neutral effects on an eater’s weight status and that it may lower a person’s risk for heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. One example: A 2016 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that people who ate more than one serving of cheese a day were less likely to become overweight or obese than those who ate cheese less frequently. And a 2017 research review is one of several recent reports linking regular cheese consumption to a lower risk for heart disease and stroke.
“Any food is unhealthy if you consume too much of it.”
As a result of these and other reports, the old view that cheese is little more than salt and saturated fat has come to seem unhelpfully simplistic. “Cheese is a good source of vitamins, minerals, and conjugated linoleic acid, which is associated with reduced inflammation,” Miller says.
It’s also loaded with calcium and protein and contains almost no carbohydrates, says Michael Tunick, an assistant clinical professor of food science at Drexel University and author of The Science of Cheese. That said, “any food is unhealthy if you consume too much of it,” Tunick adds — a warning issued by other health experts.
Rather than packing your diet with cheese-layered entrées like pizza or lasagna, eating cheese on salads or as an add-on with other healthy foods is a better idea, Miller says. A lot of the positive research on cheese suggests that it’s healthy in part because it’s filling, so adding it to meals may help you eat less overall.
But what kind of cheese is healthiest? That’s tricky. “There is really no evidence that one type of cheese is better than another,” says Walter Willett, MD, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
But cobbled together, the existing evidence points toward some cheeses and away from others.
The heavily processed cheeses dominating the dairy aisles of most major grocery stores are probably out of the running. “Much domestic cheese contains various chemicals, preservatives, stabilizers, and, of course, cellulose,” says Larry Olmsted, author of Real Food, Fake Food, a book about the adulteration of many popular food products. None of these additives is likely to do your health any favors.
You may also want to steer clear of low- or reduced-fat cheeses. To date, a lot of the positive research on cheese (and other dairy products, for that matter) suggests the full-fat types are healthier.
A 2015 study linked the consumption of full-fat dairy products to a reduced risk for Type 2 diabetes, while eating low-fat dairy in some cases had the opposite effect. The authors of that study speculate that specific fatty acids in dairy could affect metabolism or insulin resistance in beneficial ways. Moreover, a 2013 review on full-fat diary found no evidence that it increases waistlines or drives heart disease. That study’s authors write that full-fat, traditionally made cheeses — those that require long periods of fermentation and are “more commonly consumed in Europe” — may contain some healthful bioactive compounds not found in quick, mass-produced cheeses.
In line with all this research, Olmsted says his “healthiest cheese” pick is true Parmigiano-Reggiano — the kind actually made in Parma, Italy, or in nearby Reggio. He says real-deal Parm is made only from 100 percent drug- and pesticide-free milk. “It is a near-perfect food made in a near-perfect way that is good for those who eat it, those that make it, and the planet,” he says.
The same superlatives could be applied to many traditionally made cheeses — both domestic and international. While there’s no systematic research showing these fatty, additive-free cheeses are better for you, a lot of the evidence suggests they’re a good bet.