“Life is great. Cheese makes it better.” That’s what Avery Aames wrote in her book The Long Quiche Goodbye. Unfortunately for folks like Aames, the feta fans, burrata backers and gorgonzola groupies, cheese is often demonized for its high-fat content and possible addictive qualities. But nutrition experts say it’s time to clean up the dairy delight’s reputation.
“Cheese can definitely be part of a healthy diet,” says Isabel Maples, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the Washington, DC metro area. “It’s loaded with nutrients that many people fall short on. Though people think calcium with cheese, it’s also a great source of protein, phosphorus, vitamin A and zinc.”
In fact, one recent study published in the journal Nutrition Dietetics found that adequate dairy consumption is associated with lower blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio (a potential risk factor for cardiovascular disease) and body fat.
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Phew! Now that cheese boasts the scientific seal of approval, here are a few things to keep in mind as you make your life a lot better with a little cheddar.
1. You’re probably not eating enough calcium. Cheese can help.
The USDA’s MyPlate recommendations suggest three servings of dairy each day for better bone health. “A lack of calcium really is a top public health concern. After age 4, no age group, male or female, consumes enough calcium,” Maples says. Dairy and cheese are the top dietary sources of calcium, so think of a dose of cheddar as a “vitamin” of sorts to fill in some nutrient gaps.
2. The dairy makes it a protein powerhouse.
The coagulation of casein — a milk protein — gives cheese its distinct texture. That component is another reason to enjoy a sprinkling or a few cubes of it, Maples adds. “Research proves that [protein] can help the body build and maintain muscle.” So there’s a strong case, especially for those who are eating little or no meat, to add some dairy to the menu.
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3. It’s not complicated.
Unlike “cheez” products that line supermarket shelves, real 100 percent cheese doesn’t have a lot of baggage. “Cheese is made with simple ingredients: milk, salt, an enzyme (rennet) and good bacteria to encourage the fermentation process. Even if you’re following a specific eating program, like low-salt, low-lactose or low-fat, you can still find smart ways to incorporate cheese into your diet,” Maples says.
4. Cheese can actually help cut your risk for certain diseases.
Research shows that consuming three servings of calcium-rich foods daily (about twice as much as the average person consumes) can help lower your risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, high blood pressure, stroke and heart disease. While some people have pegged dairy foods as being kidney stone creators, the opposite is actually true, Maples says. “Consuming calcium-rich foods, like cheese, can help bind oxalates and phytates that cause kidney stones, which decreases the risk of developing stones,” she explains.
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5. Easy cooking hacks can help stretch each bite.
Here’s some food magic for you: 10 pounds of milk go into every single pound of cheese. In other words, the calories, fat and sodium are concentrated. Try Maples’ two go-to hacks to extend each ounce of cheese and get the most bang for your calorie buck:
Think powerful. “Use a sharp instead of mild cheddar on a casserole, so you can enjoy a lot of flavor without a mounding up the cheese.”
Be grateful. “One ounce of cheese, about the size of your thumb, looks like a quarter cup once it’s grated. Freshly grated is even fluffier than the bagged, shredded kind, so invest in a microplane grater to make it easy to do at home.”
6. Cheese can make it a cinch to reach your fruit and veggie quota.
The cheese stands alone? Nope. “Cheese plays well with others,” Maples says. “Since it’s a familiar ingredient that most people love, I tell my clients to pair it with other foods they need more of, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables.” Try apple slices with cheddar, watermelon with feta and mint or mozzarella with tomatoes and basil.
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7. It’s one of the most versatile foods on the planet.
Salads. Pizzas. Omelets. Sandwiches. Pastas. There are many foods that can be made better with cheese added in. “Many think of cheese as an indulgent, flavorful food. But I like to think of it as a source of ‘good tasting’ and ‘good for you’ all at once,” Maples says.
For most Americans, a quarter of daily calorie consumption comes via snacks, so load your between-meal bites with smart choices like cheese sticks and nuts. Come dinnertime, sprinkle a serving on your appetizer salad or bruschetta, or try a slice on your sandwich. At parties, seek out the cheese tray. And rather than a sugary treat to wrap up the meal the next time you dine out, keep your eyes peeled for a cheese plate dessert.
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