May is an odd time of year, healthwise. New Year’s resolutions are long forgotten, and if you’re like me, you probably spent the bulk of the long winter watching movies and feasting on grilled cheese. And yet, with summer looming around the corner, and swimsuit season with it, the rush to get fit is back upon us.
I’ve noticed that cheese is always one of the first things people cut out of their diet when they’re looking to trim down, and this makes me very sad. True, cheese has a lot of calories and fat per serving, and, like most foods, it can be unhealthy if overindulged. But when eaten mindfully and in moderation, it will not wreck your diet, and it can actually add to your overall health.
Cheese is actually full of important nutrients, most notably protein, which, along with the cheese’s fat, helps you feel full. In his book Mastering Cheese, Max McCalman points out that “if you compare a 3.5 ounce chunk of a hard, aged cheese such as Cheddar or Emmentaler to an equivalent amount of chicken eggs, the cheese contains about twice as much protein and one quarter the cholesterol.”¹ Cheese is also an excellent source of calcium, as well as other important vitamins and minerals. Because cheese essentially takes all the elements of milk that are good for you and concentrates them, it gives you a lot of nutritional bang for your buck, and gives your body a head start on digestion.
But, you might be asking, couldn’t you just play it safe and enjoy cheese guilt-free by choosing the low-fat varieties? Well, not exactly. According to nutritionist Alan Aragon, “The combination of protein and fat in regular, full-fat cheese is very satiating. As a result, eating full-fat cheese holds your appetite at bay for hours, and I’ve found that it cuts down my clients’ food intake at subsequent meals.”² Not to mention, restricting yourself to only low-fat and fat-free cheese pretty much limits your options to string cheese and shrink-wrapped blocks. Those are tasty enough, but just think of all the amazing, lovingly crafted cheeses you’d miss out on as a result.
As with nearly all foods, though, the key here is moderation. If you eat an entire block of Cheddar, any health benefits you might have received will be canceled out by the fact that you just ate an entire block of Cheddar. Simply be mindful of portion size—an ounce is perfectly reasonable, and it’s equivalent in size to about two dominoes. No, it’s not a feast-worthy portion, but it’s also not so measly as to make you feel deprived. You can make it go even further by pairing it with other healthy foods; a couple slices of cheese, a crispy apple, and some crusty bread make an excellent snack, or even a light lunch.
I hope you’ll keep cheese in your life no matter what your current eating plan. You can easily enjoy all the cheese world has to offer and still keep an eye on your health by sticking to reasonable portions and saving the really cheesy indulgences for special occasions.
Jesi Dunaway, Cheesemonger
1. Mastering Cheese: Lessons for Connoisseurship from a Maitre Fromager by Max McCalman, Clarkson Potter Publishers
2. Men’s Health: “The Health Benefits of Eating Full-Fat Cheese” by Denny Watkins.