There was a time when Sunday night dinner for my husband and me could consist of bread, wine, and a selection of lovely cheeses. We had our favorites: brie, Humboldt Fog, an imported cheddar called Red Dragon, and maybe a fruited Wensleydale (this was around the time we were watching a lot of Wallace and Gromit with our toddler, so our choices may have been influenced a little bit).
It was an easy, casual meal that we both used to enjoy. And it’s one of those things I don’t do any more, which is a shame – because I like cheese.
I really, really, really like it.
The Problem with Cheese
I was reminded of this the other day, as I passed the cheese selection at a local supermarket known for such things. I no longer have to deal with a youngster who would hold her breath and complain about the smell of the stinkiest cheeses (she’s grown and flown). But these days, I’m more interested in finding foods rated 0 points on Weight Watchers.
I glanced wistfully at a beautifully prepared cheese plate that was the perfect size for an empty-nest couple: A small wedge of Brie, a log of goat cheese, six slices each of Manchego and something that could be a white cheddar. Plus a couple of sprigs of red grapes and handful of assorted dried fruit. A pound in all, which I concluded was WW eleventy-million points.
It actually adds up to about 30 points, which is 7 points more than my allotment for the entire day. And that’s before you add in the crusty bread (2 points per slice) or crackers (2 points for four of them). Or wine (4 points for a 5-oz glass), because why would I have all that cheese without a nice glass of Cabernet?
I wanted that cheese plate. I wanted it bad. And since I’m really good at finding ways to justify getting the things I want, I did a little research on the health benefits of cheese. And you know what? I found some!
Nutritional Makeup of Cheese
My mistake as a cheese lover is that after years of trying different forms of low-carb regimens, I circled back WW, which is the grandma of balanced diet plans. If I had chosen a ketogenic diet, I’d be able to eat a lot more cheese (but not the crusty French bread and probably not the wine).
Cheese is OK on a low-carb diet because it carries a power pack of protein: there’s a whopping 6.5 grams per ounce of cheddar – and hard cheeses like Parmesan contain even more protein, and even probiotic benefits.
Goat and sheep cheeses are higher in protein, lower in calories, and more tolerated by people who are sensitive to dairy products (so right there is my justification for eating a little more of that Humboldt Fog and Manchego).
Alas, if your diet is a more traditional, calorie-focused regime, you’ll note that ounce of cheddar translates to 115 calories. And 85 of those are saturated fat.
Here’s where the discussion of healthy foods gets dicey. For years, we have believed that consuming foods low in saturated fat translated into better weight management and cardiovascular health.
Advocate Trinity Hospital dietitian Dotty Berzy definitely subscribes to this theory. “If you like cheese, feta, mozzarella and Swiss are the most heart healthy,’’ she says.
New Nutritional Studies
Fat, notes the editors at Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, is “a major source of energy.”
- It helps you absorb some vitamins and minerals
- Is necessary to build cell membranes, the vital exterior of each cell, and the sheaths surrounding nerves.
- It is essential for blood clotting, muscle movement, and inflammation.
“For long-term health, some fats are better than others. Good fats include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Bad ones include industrial-made trans fats. Saturated fats fall somewhere in the middle,” they say.
Generally speaking, the good mono- and polyunsaturated fats come from food sources (think avocados, and olive oils). Animal products like cheese contain saturated fats.
” A diet rich in saturated fats can drive up total cholesterol, and tip the balance toward more harmful LDL cholesterol, which prompts blockages to form in arteries in the heart and elsewhere in the body. For that reason, most nutrition experts recommend limiting saturated fat to under 10% of calories a day,” says Harvard Medical.
And yet: “A handful of recent reports have muddied the link between saturated fat and heart disease,” they note.
Other Cheesy Benefits
Cheese includes some other, very interesting nutrients. The Dairy Council of California (which obviously wants to drum up more consumption) lists a few:
- Calcium (of course!)
- vitamin A
- vitamin B12
Other studies indicate that eating some cheeses can positively affect the gut bacteria in your microbiome, introducing beneficial compounds like butyrate and spermidine (which hve both metabolism-boosting and anti-cancer effects).
In the end, nutritionists seem to agree that if you enjoy eating cheese, omitting it from your diet entirely is a silly thing to do… and like almost anything else that’s enjoyable, it is OK to consume in moderation.
That doesn’t mean I’ll be buying that cheese platter to enjoy on a weekly basis. But the next time my sister wonders if she should serve one at a holiday gathering (hint, hint!), I’ll tell her to go ahead – without guilt.
Because she likes cheese, too.