Cheese is a popular and versatile ingredient and it’s a common ingredient in popular dishes from many different cultures. Cheese has often gotten a bad rap in diet culture for being an indulgent treat or it’s thought to contribute to weight gain or poor heart health. However, just like with any food in our diet, it’s all about how much we eat of it, and cheese can definitely be a part of a healthy diet!
Is cheese healthy for you?
Some of the main health benefits of including cheese in the diet are the calcium and protein content. Cheese is part of the dairy food group, which contributes the largest portion of calcium intake in our diets and helps to build strong, healthy bones, and maintain bone health with ageing. Protein helps with muscle mass maintenance and is also a satiating nutrient, so consuming cheese in meals or snacks can help contribute to fullness and appetite management across the day.
More recent research also shows it’s not just about these individual nutrients in isolation that make food like cheese a healthy inclusion in the diet, it’s about the ‘food matrix effect’. The health effects of dairy foods extend beyond the benefits of individual nutrients they contain, but rather, it’s the combination of nutrients and how they interact with each other that contributes to positive health effects. The structure of a food (i.e., liquid milk or a semi-solid cheese) can also affect the bioavailability of these nutrients, or how easily they are digested and absorbed in the body. For example, cheese does contain sodium and saturated fat, but several studies have shown that cheese has a neutral effect on health outcomes, with other studies linking cheese with reduced risk of stroke, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. This is thought to be due to the interaction of the nutrients in cheese that together modify the effect of saturated fatty acids on cholesterol levels.
Is cheese unhealthy?
Varieties of cheeses do have different nutritional profiles, so some are better everyday choices compared to others. Between 2.5-4 serves of dairy foods per day (depending on age and gender) is recommended in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. It’s best to spread these servings across milk, yoghurt and cheese due to the health benefits of these foods individually. Cheese can be included as part of a healthy diet but should be factored into these daily serve recommendations and balanced out with milk and yoghurt too, as over-consuming cheese regularly may mean that other nutrients in the diet are being missed. Additionally, cheese is naturally energy-dense due to its high fat content, so choosing lower-fat cheese varieties or eating small portions might be ideal if weight management is a priority.
What are the healthiest cheeses to eat?
We’ve put together a list of the 7 healthiest types of cheese to choose from for everyday use.
1. Cottage cheese
Fresh unripened cheeses, such as cottage cheese, are typically high in moisture and low in fat. They have shorter shelf lives and a have more mild flavour compared to mature cheeses. This makes cottage cheeses a versatile cheese that can be used in both sweet or savoury dishes. It can add a creamy texture to dishes without adding excess energy, or used as a spread on crackers or sandwiches for a high protein snack.
Mozzarella cheese is traditionally made from Italian buffalo milk but is now often made from cow’s milk. Mozzarella has a lower sodium and energy content than most other cheeses and is also a source of probiotics that can be beneficial for gut health. Use mozzarella in pasta dishes and healthy homemade vegetable pizzas.
3. Goats cheese
While goats cheese isn’t made from dairy milk, it is a cheese growing in popularity with more varieties available in grocery stores. Goats cheese has a milder flavour than feta and is lower in sodium as well as fat, but can be used in similar ways. Add goats cheese to salads, on top of homemade pizzas, or as a flavour booster on top of a bowl of warm roasted vegetables.
4. Hard cheeses
Hard cheeses such as pecorino and parmesan have been aged for longer than soft cheeses which gives them a richer flavour and harder texture. These types of cheeses are perfect for sprinkling over pastas and pizzas, or adding shavings to a fresh salad. Hard cheese is a great option for anyone with lactose intolerance as they are very low in lactose, and is a good source of calcium and phosphorous which can contribute to good bone health.
Similar to cottage cheese, ricotta is a fresh soft cheese with a mild flavour that can be used in sweet or savoury cooking. Ricotta typically has a higher fat content than cottage cheese but is higher in calcium. Ricotta can be used as a spread on crackers or toast with tomatoes or sliced fruit for a healthy snack, can add a creamy texture to pastas, or use it as a healthier swap for bechamel in a lasagne.
5. Feta cheese
Feta is typically higher in sodium than most cheeses to being packaged in brine to preserve freshness, however is also lower in energy content. Some limited research has shown that feta is high conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) which is a fatty acid linked to improved body composition. Include feta crumbled over salads or vegetables, or crumble it over poached eggs on toast for a healthy breakfast.
6. Swiss cheese
Swiss cheese originates from Switzerland and is characterised by its distinctive holes throughout. It is lower fat, lower energy and lower sodium cheese compared to other similar textured cheeses such as cheddar. Use sliced swiss cheese in sandwiches or as a snack on wholegrain crackers.
7. Blue cheese
Blue cheese has a very high calcium content but is also high in saturated fats. Due to the rich, distinctive flavour of blue cheese, many may find it easier to stick to small portions and prevent over-consumption. Add blue cheese crumbled over salads or homemade pizzas, or have a small amount on slices of fresh pear for a healthy afternoon snack.
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