Do you love cheese as much as chocolate? Do you put it in the same category — as an only-sometimes treat? According to the International Dairy Foods Association, 10.6 billion pounds of cheese were produced in the United States in 2011. Americans eat more of the gooey, creamy, rich wheys of milk than ever before. But if you're wondering just how much cheese is OK and what kinds won't blow your healthy eating plan, you've come to the right place.
"Cheese can fit into almost any eating plan," says Rene Ficek, RD, lead nutrition expert at Seattle Sutton's Healthy Eating, a family owned, Illinois-based company that offers freshly prepared traditional meal plans.
"Several daily servings of dairy foods, like cheese, are recommended to the general public for health reasons. Cheese provides important nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus and protein. And it can even be made to have more calcium, a nutrient that many different age groups fail to get enough of."
The healthfulness of cheese depends on what your nutrition goals are. "Although considered a generally healthy food, cheese often times comes with high amounts of sodium and saturated fat. If you need to watch your cholesterol levels, or have high blood pressure, limiting the amount and type of cheese you eat is a good idea," says Ficek.
Which cheese should I eat?
"Some cheeses are so rich in fat and calories, that a small bite is best. I recommend using sharp cheeses with strong flavors in order to cut back on the amount," says Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, author of "The Overworked Person's Guide to Better Nutrition" and a consultant to Daisy brand cottage cheese.
In general, Weisenberger looks for cheeses that are lower in saturated fat, say just 2 or 3 grams per serving. "I wouldn't say that you should steer clear of any cheese in particular unless you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system. In that case, you should avoid cheeses that have not been pasteurized. These include most Brie, feta and blue cheeses."
Cottage cheese pairs smoothly with fruit. (Photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr)
Generally speaking, cottage cheese is a good choice. Low-fat cottage cheese has 13 grams of protein and only 1.5 grams of saturated fat. Plus, cottage cheese is like a blank slate because you can make it sweet by adding fruits or make it savory by adding tomatoes and basil, or sprinkled with cinnamon.
1 cup large curd = 206 calories
Goat's milk cheese
Goat's and sheep's milk cheeses have smaller fat globules than cow's milk, making them easier to digest for those sensitive to dairy. They also have higher levels of calcium.
1 ounce = 103 calories, 6 grams saturated fat
Triple crème cheeses
"Triple-creme cheeses (thought to be super decadent) have a high moisture content so actually, ounce-for-ounce, they have less fat than Parmigiano Reggiano, which is technically a 'skimmed milk' cheese," says Pamela Brewer, a cheese monger at Affiné Fine Cheese.
1 tablespoon = 50 calories, 2.7 grams saturated fat
Cow's milk cheese
Look for cheddar cheese with a natural yellow hue. (Photo: Brian Boucheron/Flickr)
Seek out cow's milk cheeses with a natural yellow-ish coloration (not dyed orange). That's beta-carotene in the milk, and a sign that the cows were grazing on grass (not grain or soy). "Not only is the beta-carotene good for us, but these cheeses are likely to have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids and CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) as well," says Brewer.
1 ounce cheddar = 115 calories, 5.4 grams saturated fat
Hard and soft cheese
"Opt for using grated Parmesan or hard varieties (grated goes further), a crumble of flavorful blue, Gorgonzola or spoonful of rich creamy, aromatic varieties," says Lisa C. Cohn, MMSc, RD, of Park Avenue Nutrition in New York City.
1 ounce Parmesan =119 calories, 4.3 grams saturated fat
1 ounce blue = 100 calories, 5.4 grams saturated fat
Go with organic or natural local options, which are less hormone-laden and contain less processed ingredients. If you choose raw varieties, be sure they are fresh, best eaten within 1-2 days and refrigerated properly as they can cause severe illness.
Gorgonzola cheese contains up to six times the amount of salt compared to soft white cheeses.
Swiss cheese naturally has a low level of sodium and is considered a low-sodium food. Other lower sodium cheeses include Monterey Jack, ricotta and parmesan.
Many manufacturers also offer reduced sodium cheese, but look at ingredients since sometimes artificial colors are used, or fat content is increased to replace the salt.
If you're watching cholesterol, choose lower fat varieties. Provolone and mozzarella contain lower amounts of saturated fats.
A portion size is one ounce.
One ounce or 1/4 cup of shredded cheese run about 100 calories (same as 3 ounces of poultry breast, or white fish, less the fat).
If fat and calories are the concern, choose high-moisture cheeses, like fresh chevre or sheep's milk feta, which naturally have a lower fat percentage but are still satisfying and flavorful.
"As a dietitian and lover of cheese, I would never recommend non-fat cheese. Non-fat cheese has significantly been altered with salt, preservatives, color, etc. Plus it doesn't cooperate in the same manner as regular cheese. The texture and mouthfeel may not even resemble cheese," says Ficek.
Remember that fat is important in satiating hunger and making us happy. Go for the real stuff and savor it guilt-free in moderation.