Cheese is one of the most popular foods, eaten by itself or as added flavor to meals. I know my fridge has string cheese for snacks, slices of cheese for sandwiches, and shredded cheese and block cheese for cooking. However, despite the excellent taste I wonder what health benefits or concerns cheese has on my family and me. Will the nutritional benefits of cheese out weigh the effects it has on our waist line and arteries?
It is common knowledge that dairy products such as cheese are high in calcium content. Calcium is beneficial to both bone and dental health, and can help prevent or slow effects of osteoporosis, in combination with protein and vitamins provided by cheese. Two of the vitamins cheese supplies are vitamin A and vitamin B12. Vitamin A helps with cell growth, vision, and the immune system. Vitamin B12 specifically is beneficial to children, pregnant and lactating women, and the elderly. Calcium and vitamin B12 affect the absorption of each other, and it is beneficial to consume adequate amounts daily. In 2005 a study in the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research showed participants with low plasma levels of B12 had significantly lower levels of bone density compared with participants with higher levels of B12. When calcium levels are low the body secrets parathyroid hormone, which stimulates the body to absorb calcium through digestion or, if not available, takes calcium from bone. It is a safer choice to provide calcium and B12 rich foods such as cheese, to avoid weakening bone density.
Unlike low-fat cheese, many foods can hinder the absorption of calcium. Soft drinks, salt, sugar,excessive amounts of fat, and coffee are a few foods lowering the body’s ability to absorb calcium. Cheese, however, not only is high in calcium but is low in lactose content. Lactose is a type of sugar that many people are allergic to. The older the cheese is the lower its lactose content will be. For example, I have a mild lactose intolerance. I can’t drink regular milk or eat ice cream without stomach complications, but most aged cheeses cause me no trouble. Since cheese is low in sugar calcium has a better chance of absorbing. that chance is increased when choosing low-fat cheeses.
Despite the many nutritional benefits of cheese there are concerns with cholesterol content, fat, and saturated fat specifically. Dairy products are the number two source, following meat, for the over consumption of fat and cholesterol in America. Regular, full-fat cheese has around 228 calories, 19 grams of fat, 50 to 60 milligrams of cholesterol, an 12 grams of saturated fat. On the other hand, the same 2 ounces of reduced-fat cheese provides 40% to 50% of daily calcium and 15 grams of protein, while only having 160 to 180 calories, 10 to 12 grams of fat, 30 to 40 milligrams of cholesterol, and 8 grams of saturated fat.
There are many ways to continue enjoying cheese while maintaining a healthy diet:
- First, switch to lite or reduced-fat cheese, limiting yourself to 2 ounces of full-fat cheese PER WEEK. This alone can cut more than 4 grams of saturated fat each day from the average diet.
- Second, cut fat from your diet in other ways when there is no low-fat cheese substitute, such as Parmesan.
- Third, when using full-fat cheeses use those with high flavor, such as Parmesan, smoked cheese, extra-sharp Cheddar, goat or feta cheese, and pungent cheeses. Because of the strong flavor less is needed.
- Fourth, lightly sprinkle shredded cheese on a meal, instead of covering it completely. One cup of shredded cheese can be sprinkled on a 9 x 13 in. baking dish and still have the desired flavor.
- Fifth, when you eat cheese try pairing it with fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole wheat pastas instead of high-fat meats or creams.
- Last, as recommended for all foods, check labels and compare nutrition on similar styles of cheese before purchasing and be aware of serving sizes.
If you are unsure of what types of cheeses to incorporate into your healthier life, after cleaning out the clutter of the higher-fat cheeses from your fridge, try buying a few types of block cheese and having a night of fruit and cheese. Your family can decide which flavors they like best and discuss what type of foods they would go well with. The block cheese can be easily sliced or shredded. One of my favorites is applewood smoked Gouda, which my husband and I eat with fruit and mix it in different dishes, such as grilled vegetables. What are your favorite types of cheeses and healthier ways of using them?
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