The question: I love cheese. Is it good or bad for me? Is one type healthier than another?
The answer: When it comes to health, cheese is a good news, bad news story. On the plus side, hard cheese is an excellent source of protein and calcium. One ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, has 7 grams of protein and 205 milligrams of calcium. Eat 1.5 ounces – considered 1 Milk and Alternatives serving – and you're getting the same amount of calcium as one cup of milk (305 mg).
Soft cheeses such as brie and Camembert provide less calcium with 78 mg and 165 mg of calcium per serving (1.5 ounces), respectively. Cottage cheese doesn't compare to hard cheese either; one-half cup delivers 70 mg of calcium.
Cheese also provides a fair amount of vitamins A, B2 (riboflavin) and B12, magnesium and zinc. And hard cheeses such as cheddar, Swiss and Parmesan contain very little lactose so people with a mild to moderate lactose intolerance can eat it without any symptoms.
The downside: cheese is high in fat, especially saturated fat, the type that raises LDL blood cholesterol. Dairy products contain a class of saturated fat called myristic acid, which is the most potent type of saturated fat when it comes to cholesterol raising. One serving of cheese (1.5 ounces) delivers 9 grams of saturated fat, almost half a day's worth for someone following a 2000-calorie diet.
(Canadians are advised to consume no more than 10 per cent of a day's worth of calories from saturated fat. The math: 2000 calories x 0.10 = 200 calories from saturated fat; since 1 gram of fat has 9 calories, 200/9 equals 22 grams of saturated fat.)
There is controversy about how bad saturated fat is for heart health. Recent studies suggest that eating diets high in saturated fat don't raise the risk of heart disease or stroke. But that doesn't mean you can eat as much cheese – or bacon – as you like.
Reducing your intake of saturated fat is good for you health if you replace it with heart-healthy unsaturated fat found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, avocado and oily fish. Swapping refined carbohydrates (e.g. white bread, white rice, sweets, sugary drinks) for saturated fat, however, won't benefit your health. Doing so can lower HDL (good) cholesterol and blood triglycerides, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
Back to cheese. If you eat it often – and you're trying to reduce your saturated fat intake – choose partly skimmed milk (15 to 20 per cent milk fat) or skim milk (less than 10 per cent milk fat) cheese more often. Other tips to cut back on full fat cheese include:
Order pizza with half the regular amount of full fat mozzarella cheese. Or, skip the mozzarella and top your pizza with goat or feta cheese instead (it's lower in fat and bigger in flavour).
At restaurants, order sandwiches and burgers without cheese. Adding cheese (processed) to a McDonald's Quarter Pounder, for example, boosts its saturated fat content by 5 grams – a quarter of a day's worth. (It also adds 100 calories and 480 mg of sodium.)
Use reduced-fat cheeses in baking and cooking. For instance, make lasagna with part skim milk cheese and ricotta with 5 per cent milk fat.
When adding full fat cheese to sandwiches and wraps, use grated cheese instead of slices to decrease the portion while still adding flavour.