Can Cheese Be Good for Metabolic Health?
Cheese pretty much makes everything taste better. Melted, added as a salad topping, shredded on top of tacos, or crumbled over pasta, cheese has a way of making meals more enjoyable. But is it good for your health?
The dietitian’s answer that no one likes to hear: it depends. Cheese can be part of a healthy diet for some people, while others may want to limit their intake or avoid it altogether, and like many other foods, it's all about balancing with other important nutrients.
Let's talk about cheese, the pros and cons, and how to make it work for your metabolic health.
Cheese and Metabolic Health
Cheese is a dairy product made from curdled milk. It's a high-protein food, which makes it a potentially good choice for blood sugar balance and metabolic health.1
One marker of metabolic health is blood sugar which indicates how efficiently your body uses energy from carbohydrates. When you eat foods that contain carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars like glucose.2 Glucose is then used for energy or stored in your liver and muscles in the form of glycogen.
If you regularly eat more carbohydrates than your body can use for energy, your blood sugar can spike, stay elevated longer, or the excess glucose is converted to fat and stored in your adipose tissue (body fat).
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn about </strong> <a href="/blog/slow-digesting-carbs-and-blood-sugar-control">the best carbs for blood sugar control</a>.</p>
So, where does cheese come in?
Cheese contains protein to help slow down blood sugar spikes and support metabolic health.
Protein takes longer to break down and digest than carbohydrates, which means it can help regulate blood sugar levels.3 Protein and fat can also help keep you fuller longer.
On the flip side, too much cheese could have the opposite effect. While cheese may have some benefits for metabolic health, overeating can lead to weight gain and other health problems. So like anything else, it's all about balance.
The Nutritional Value of Cheese
Here's a look at the nutritional values in one ounce of several common types of cheese:4
There are also alternatives to cow milk-based cheese like goat or sheep cheese which contain a similar nutritional value.
Vegan cheese alternatives tend to be lower in protein and fat but vary widely. They are often made from cashew, which contains less saturated fat than cheese made from cow's milk.
Pros Of Eating Cheese
- Cheese is a good source of protein. As mentioned, protein is a vital macronutrient for blood sugar control and metabolic health. One study found that people who ate a high protein diet achieved better control of insulin resistance than those who ate a Mediterranean diet.5
- Cheese is a calcium-rich food. Calcium is an essential mineral for bone health, muscle function, and nerve transmission.6 Dairy products like cheese are a significant source of calcium in the diet.
- Cheese is a low-carb food. If you're following a low-carb diet, cheese is a great food to include. Most types of cheese are very low in carbohydrates.
- Fermented cheese like feta and swiss can have probiotic benefits. Probiotics are live bacteria that are good for your gut health to support digestive issues immune health, and even metabolic health.7
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Read more about </strong> <a href="/blog/is-a-low-carb-diet-healthy">low-carb diets</a>.</p>
Cons of Eating Cheese
Cheese is high in saturated fat.
The science behind saturated fat is complicated. On the one hand, many studies suggest that too much can lead to problems like heart disease and unintended weight gain.8
Other studies conclude that saturated fat does not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.9, 10 Nutrition is often hard to study because we are all so different with different genetics and live in different environments that could also increase our risk of disease.
Plus, studying a single nutrient is challenging because no one eats just that food and nothing else. It may be that the right amount of saturated fat could depend on the individual person (and if you aren't sure, a registered dietitian can help you come up with a plan).
That said, typical recommendations for daily saturated fat intake is less than 10% of total calories.11 So for a person eating 2000 calories, this is about 22 grams of saturated fat per day, which still leaves room for cheese if you are sticking to these recommendations.
Cheese is high in sodium.
Too much sodium is linked with high blood pressure and heart disease for certain people.12
The recommended daily intake of sodium is less than 2300 mg per day.13 A single ounce of cheddar cheese contains about 180 mg of sodium, which is about 8% of the recommended daily intake.14
However, many studies also suggest that balancing sodium with potassium-rich foods is as important as monitoring sodium intake alone.15 So pairing your cheese with foods that contain potassium, like fruits and vegetables, can help offset the effects of sodium and keep your diet balanced.
Cheese is high in calories.
Cheese is a calorie-dense food, which means it contains a lot of calories in a small amount of food.
As you saw above, a single ounce of cheddar cheese contains about 115 calories. An ounce is about a slice of cheese, making it easy to quickly bump up the calories. So once again, it's about balance and keeping an eye on portions.
Food sensitivity and intolerance
Some people experience GI issues like constipation or bloating from eating dairy products like cheese. This is primarily because cheese is a source of lactose, which is a type of sugar that's difficult for some people to digest.
If you're sensitive to lactose or have any type of sensitivity to cheese, certain cheeses like parmesan and swiss tend to be lower in lactose. There are also lactose-free cheese options or vegan cheese made from plant-based ingredients. Rule of thumb? If cheese doesn’t make you feel good, it’s best to avoid it.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/dairy-blood-sugar">dairy products and blood sugar</a>.</p>
How to Choose A Healthy Cheese
With all of this in mind, how can you choose a healthy cheese?
Here are a few tips:
- Keep tabs on saturated fat. Since the topic is complex, moderate intake is best.
- Monitor sodium. Choose cheese that's lower in sodium, or offset the effects by eating potassium-rich foods.
- Limit your portion size. Remember, an ounce is about a slice.
- Pair your cheese with other healthy foods. Add it to a salad or sandwich with lots of vegetables, or enjoy it as part of a healthy veggie scramble.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/low-glycemic-vegetables">the best low-glycemic vegetables</a>.</p>
Is it Okay to Eat Cheese Every Day?
Yes, it's okay to eat cheese every day as long as your diet is filled with other nutrient-rich foods. Cheese can be a part of a healthy diet, but it's important to remember that moderation is key.
If you have a health condition like cardiovascular disease or high blood pressure, you can discuss your diet with a doctor or registered dietitian to ensure that cheese can be part of your healthy eating plan.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Learn more about </strong> <a href="/blog/dash-diet-weight-loss">the DASH diet for heart health</a>.</p>
Use a CGM to Experiment With Cheese
If you're curious to see how your body responds to cheese, you can experiment with a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). A CGM is a small device that you wear on your body that measures your blood sugar levels continuously throughout the day.
A CGM can be helpful for people with diabetes or for anyone who wants to get a better understanding of how their body responds to different foods. It's a fun way to perform a self-experiment so you can see if cheese really does help with your blood sugar. Using a CGM paired with the Signos app gives you real-time feedback so you can learn about your body.
Try adding cheese to a carbohydrate that you know usually spikes your blood sugar or even timing it by eating it ten to fifteen minutes before a meal to see if it impacts your post-meal blood sugar.
Cheese and Metabolic Health: Final Takeaways
Metabolic health is complex, but for most people, cheese can be part of a healthy diet. Moderation is key, and it's helpful to keep an eye on both saturated fat and sodium intake.
If you're going to eat cheese, keep an eye on portion sizes and remember to balance it with other nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables.
As always, if you have a health condition like diabetes or high blood pressure, it's important to discuss your diet with a doctor or registered dietitian.
But if you're simply curious about how cheese affects your body, go ahead and experiment. Use a CGM to track your blood sugar levels before and after eating cheese with other macronutrients, specifically carbohydrates, and see if it makes a difference for you.
<p class="pro-tip"><strong>Keep reading about: </strong> <a href="/blog/the-8-best-foods-for-metabolic-health">the best types of food for metabolic health</a>.</p>
- Alemán-Mateo, H., Carreón, V. R., Macías, L., Astiazaran-García, H., Gallegos-Aguilar, A. C., & Enríquez, J. R. (2014). Nutrient-rich dairy proteins improve appendicular skeletal muscle mass and physical performance, and attenuate the loss of muscle strength in older men and women subjects: a single-blind randomized clinical trial. Clinical interventions in aging, 9, 1517–1525. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S67449
- Dashty M. (2013). A quick look at biochemistry: carbohydrate metabolism. Clinical biochemistry, 46(15), 1339–1352. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clinbiochem.2013.04.027
- Gannon, M. C., Nuttall, F. Q., Saeed, A., Jordan, K., & Hoover, H. (2003). An increase in dietary protein improves the blood glucose response in persons with type 2 diabetes. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 78(4), 734–741. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/78.4.734
- “FoodData Central.” Accessed July 12, 2022, from: https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/?query=cheese
- Tettamanzi, F., Bagnardi, V., Louca, P., Nogal, A., Monti, G. S., Mambrini, S. P., Lucchetti, E., Maestrini, S., Mazza, S., Rodriguez-Mateos, A., Scacchi, M., Valdes, A. M., Invitti, C., & Menni, C. (2021). A High Protein Diet Is More Effective in Improving Insulin Resistance and Glycemic Variability Compared to a Mediterranean Diet-A Cross-Over Controlled Inpatient Dietary Study. Nutrients, 13(12), 4380. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13124380
- “Calcium and Bones: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” Accessed July 12, 2022. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002062.htm
- González, S., Fernández-Navarro, T., Arboleya, S., de Los Reyes-Gavilán, C. G., Salazar, N., & Gueimonde, M. (2019). Fermented Dairy Foods: Impact on Intestinal Microbiota and Health-Linked Biomarkers. Frontiers in microbiology, 10, 1046. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2019.01046
- Jakobsen, M. U., O'Reilly, E. J., Heitmann, B. L., Pereira, M. A., Bälter, K., Fraser, G. E., Goldbourt, U., Hallmans, G., Knekt, P., Liu, S., Pietinen, P., Spiegelman, D., Stevens, J., Virtamo, J., Willett, W. C., & Ascherio, A. (2009). Major types of dietary fat and risk of coronary heart disease: a pooled analysis of 11 cohort studies. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1425–1432. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2008.27124
- Siri-Tarino, P. W., Sun, Q., Hu, F. B., & Krauss, R. M. (2010). Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 91(3), 535–546. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.27725
- Dehghan, M., Mente, A., Zhang, X., Swaminathan, S., Li, W., Mohan, V., Iqbal, R., Kumar, R., Wentzel-Viljoen, E., Rosengren, A., Amma, L. I., Avezum, A., Chifamba, J., Diaz, R., Khatib, R., Lear, S., Lopez-Jaramillo, P., Liu, X., Gupta, R., Mohammadifard, N., … Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study investigators (2017). Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet (London, England), 390(10107), 2050–2062. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(17)32252-3
- Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. “Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee: Advisory Report to the Secretary of Agriculture and Secretary of Health and Human Services.” U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, July 15, 2020. https://doi.org/10.52570/DGAC2020
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