It’s easy to lump in cheese with cake, bread, and other waistline offenders. Not so fast, though: Although some dairy products might pack on pounds, many cheeses are actually good for you in moderation, as part of a balanced diet. (Read: This isn’t permission to eat a wedge of cheese for lunch, with a chaser of cheesecake.) Here are a few tasty morsels of information from nutritionist Karen Ansel, R.D.N., coauthor of Healthy in a Hurry: Simple, Wholesome Recipes for Every Meal of the Day; her insights will help you indulge in all the right ways.
1.) Cheese can help you stay slim
“Cheese may help you stay slim thanks to a substance called butyrate, found in many cheeses,” says Ansel. Gruyère, blue, and Gouda, Parmesan, and cheddar all have high amounts. “Research suggests that it may help boost metabolism. These cheeses also encourage the bacteria in our gut to make even more butyrate, so it’s a double win.”
2.) Cheese may help prevent cancer
This news is easy to digest: “One study found that the butyrate in cheese can protect against colon cancer by nourishing the cells of your colon,” says Ansel, “and by reducing that inflammation that can damage the colon over time.”
3.) Cheese is whey good for building muscle
“Protein-packed cheese is a smart snack for building muscle,” Ansel says. Protein is made of amino acids, which are the building blocks of muscle tissue. “For the best protein boost, try ricotta cheese,” says Ansel. “It’s one of the single best sources of whey protein, which is especially advantageous for muscle building. And it tastes a lot better than a gritty protein powder.”
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4.) Cheese is good for your bones
A strong case for Parmesan and cheddar: “Since it’s made from milk, cheese is packed with calcium to help keep your bones strong,” Ansel says. “Snacking on just one ounce of Parmesan gives you 336 milligrams of calcium, and the same amount of cheddar offers 216 milligrams.” That’s a good portion of the day’s needs: Most adult men require 1,000 milligrams of calcium daily.
5.) Cheese is good for your teeth, too
Chew on this: “Eating cheese can keep your teeth healthier thanks to calcium and phosphorus,” Ansel says. “These two minerals fight the lactic acid that’s naturally present in our mouths and prevent it from breaking down tooth enamel.” You need that enamel to chew food without damage to the teeth, as well as to prevent cavities and erosion.
6.) Cheese could ward off diabetes
Go on, upgrade from hamburger to cheeseburger. Those same butyrate-dense cheeses may help protect against type 2 diabetes. “Although research in this area is just starting to emerge, a study in the journal Diabetes found that mice that ate chow containing added butyrate had insulin levels that were 50 percent lower than mice who ate the regular kind. Experts suspect that butyrate may help human bodies use insulin more effectively too, in its managing of blood-sugar levels.”
7.) Cheese is a healthy complement to your meal
Here’s the skinny: There are many cheeses that are light in both fat and calories that are an excellent addition to your meal. “If you’re trying to cut fat and calories, stick with feta. It’s the skinniest cheese around, with only 6 grams of fat and 70 calories per ounce,” says Ansel. (We like putting it on top of our noontime spinach salads. “Mozzarella is the next best thing to feta, with only 85 calories and 6 grams of fat per ounce,” she adds. Pair it with tangy roasted peppers in a salad, or Caprese-style with basil and tomatoes. Ansel’s third pick is Swiss cheese: “It boasts only 106 calories and 8 grams of fat per ounce. Try shredding it into an omelet with asparagus or spinach.”
8.) Even the lactose-intolerant can eat certain cheeses
If lactose does a number on your stomach, you can still eat certain cheeses. “When natural cheeses including Parmesan, cheddar, Gouda, Swiss, mozzarella, and Brie are made, the manufacturing and aging processes remove almost all of the lactose,” says Ansel. Try just a bit: “One ounce of these cheeses contains less than a gram of lactose, compared with the 12 grams you’d get from a glass of milk.”
9.) It’s the best comfort food— no debate
“Everybody needs comfort foods now and then,” Ansel says. “So if you’re going to reach for one, go for cheese, which has some big nutrition benefits compared with a pile of cookies or chips. But when you do, be sure to stick with a couple of small cubes and not a huge hunk of it. Those calories can add up quickly too.”