Say what? Cheese might actually be good for you? Old-school thinking is that cheese is unhealthy, in large part because of all its saturated fat. But newer research calls into question the link between saturated fat and heart disease. In fact, eating cheese (nibbling, not gorging) is linked with numerous health benefits. Here are 5 health benefits of cheese.
Some researchers think cheese might explain the so-called French Paradox—that French people have low rates of heart disease despite their affinity for cheese and other saturated fat–rich foods, such as butter and duck. Then there's a 2016 report that analyzed results from 31 prospective cohort studies (the ones that watch people throughout their lives) that compared how much dairy people ate to whether they developed cardiovascular disease. One major finding was that eating nearly 2 ounces of cheese daily (1 ounce equals a 1-inch cube) was associated with an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease. Writing in the British Journal of Nutrition, the authors propose that minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium and vitamins like riboflavin and B12 may play a role. Another key finding: eating as little as 1/2 ounce of cheese a day could cut stroke risk by 13 percent.
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Eating 1 3/4 ounces of cheese a day may lower your risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 8 percent, says an analysis of cohort studies in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There's more good news from the same study—people who ate about 3/4 cup of yogurt daily had even lower risk. Another study in AJCN, this one out of Sweden, found that women who ate just under 2 ounces of cheese also lowered their type 2 diabetes risk. The shorter-chain saturated fats in cheese were linked to lower risk of type 2 diabetes. Also, calcium—which increases insulin secretion and may reduce insulin resistance—may fend off the disease, say researchers. Whey proteins might play a role, too, as they may increase insulin sensitivity.
OK, that's extreme. But eating cheese really may help you live longer, per a 2016 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which followed 960 French men for almost 15 years to see whether the foods they ate had any relationship to when they died. The happy finding? Eating about 2 ounces of cheese a day was associated with a 38 percent lower likelihood that they died during the study. Perhaps calcium's blood pressure–lowering effects play a role or its ability to curb fat absorption in the gut, write the researchers.
Keeping with heart health, a daily snack of cheese may lower your cholesterol. A 2015 analysis of randomized controlled trials (research's gold standard) in Nutrition Reviews compared the blood cholesterol of people eating a prescribed diet that included butter or cheese. Although both diets had about the same amount of saturated fat and calories, the cheese eaters ended their trials with lower total and LDL cholesterol than their butter-eating counterparts. Their "good" HDL cholesterol was also lower, though—the opposite of what you want. The cholesterol changes could be due to calcium's ability to ferry fat through your gut so you don't absorb it and its associated calories (the amount of calcium is much greater in cheese than in butter). Vitamin K2, found in fermented dairy products like cheese, may also play a role.
Learn More: 10 Foods That Help Lower Cholesterol
Eating almost a cup of ricotta cheese a day for 12 weeks boosted muscle mass and improved balance in healthy adults over 60. The researchers of the study—published in 2014 in Clinical Interventions in Aging—said that the milk proteins casein and whey may have fueled the improvement.