New Research Says Cheese Is A Health Food (Really!)

Photo: Jennifer Pallian

The saturated fat debate has long been raging in the health food world. Earlier this year, coconut oil made headlines as the American Heart Association declared it unilaterally unhealthy (mbg doctors largely disagree, with a few caveats). Now, a new saturated fat has fallen under the scrutiny of researchers: cheese.

Dairy has always been a dicey subject in the health food world. Many diets (paleo, vegan) tend to shun it, and some doctors point to it as the root of issues like inflammation, gut problems, and acne. The two primary exceptions are ayurveda, which embraces the milk by-product, and the of-the-moment keto diet, which relies on such a high-fat intake that cheese becomes practically a necessity.

In a new meta-analysis, researchers from China and the Netherlands analyzed 15 studies encompassing more than 200,000 people about the health effects of cheese. Thirteen of the studies analyzed went on for over 10 years. The findings?

Overall, people who consumed high levels of cheese were 10 percent less likely to have a stroke and 14 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease than participants who consumed no cheese. More isn't necessarily better, though. In the study, too much cheese was found to be as negative as too little, with the sweet spot hitting around 40 grams a day (about the size of a matchbook). Researchers didn't specify whether one type of cheese was better than the rest.

Before you go out and gobble down a slice of pizza, keep in mind that there may be more to the story. According to functional medicine practitioner Will Cole, D.C., there are many factors, such as the rest of a person's diet, that need to really be taken into consideration before making the claim that eating cheese every day is the key to minimizing heart disease. "Cheese is a high-fat food that can be very popular in ketogenic diets, and these diets have been shown to actually decrease bad oxidated cholesterol and increase good HDL cholesterol and lower inflammation levels, all markers of higher heart disease risk," he says. "The key is to really examine the context of the diet outside of cheese intake since eating extremely high levels of cheese was also correlated with increased heart disease risk. People may be eating more processed foods in addition to cheese, which can negate the benefits of these healthy fats." The take-away? Cheese is only one part of a diet, and while it may not be as harmful as previously thought, it's also not a panacea—at least on its own.

Dr. Cole also notes the importance of the quality of said cheese. "Focus on grass-fed, organic dairy," he says. "It’s also important to mention that not everyone tolerates dairy, even the grass-fed organic kind. We are all truly different, so listen to your own body."

OK, so cheese might not be so bad, but what about butter? A functional medicine doc dives into the science.

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