One of the questions we dietitians get asked most often (and with the most trepidation) is, “Do I have to eliminate cheese from my diet?” And I find that people are usually scared of our answer since they’ve often heard that cheese is unhealthy, or heard a story about a friend of a friend who lost 20 pounds by eliminating dairy. But their fear is usually alleviated when we tell them that cheese can be a part of a healthy diet, as it is a good source of calcium, phosphorus, and protein. However, not all of the criticism of cheese is unwarranted: it does contain a good amount of saturated fat and calories, and can be pretty high in sodium. So the key with cheese, as with all things in nutrition, is fitting it into your diet in the right way. Here are some of our top tips for fitting cheese into your diet – the healthy way!
Look out for sodium
Cheese is often chastised for its high fat and calorie content, but overlooked for its sodium, which can be surprisingly high. Look out for the high sodium in cheeses like feta, parmesan, and Gouda. Many people are surprised to hear that cottage cheese is a sodium offender, with about 450 milligrams of sodium per 1⁄2 cup serving. For lower sodium options, try ricotta or Swiss cheese.
Use a reduced fat cheese when you can
While it won’t work for everything, a reduced fat cheese can be a great substitution in recipes that call for a lot of cheese. It still melts well, and when it’s combined with the other flavors in the recipe, you likely won’t be able to tell a difference from the full fat variety. However, keep in mind that fat free cheeses don’t melt very well.
Limit your portion size
This is probably the most important tip for eating cheese healthfully. I have seen many people trying to lose weight who snack on large chunks of cheese, which is likely not doing any favors for their waist lines, as one serving of cheese is just one ounce. One ounce of cheese generally contains 110 calories and 9 grams of fat, 6 of which are saturated. (Saturated fat is the one that isn’t so good for heart health) If you have trouble slicing cheese to the right portion, try buying cheeses that are already sliced or pre-portioned and wrapped, such as string cheese, Tillamook brand Tilla-Moos, or mini Babybel cheeses. I also recommend using a food scale a few times, until you’re used to what a 1 ounce serving size looks like.
Use cheese so you can taste it!
Who doesn’t love melty, gooey cheese on a cold day? (or any day!) When eating cheese, make sure that it takes center stage for your taste buds, and isn’t just adding joyless calories. For me, this means foregoing cheese on cold sandwiches, as I don’t really taste it, but instead topping my salads with a shaving of parmesan cheese where I can really enjoy it. So be strategic about your cheese, and use it so you can really savor it.
Pick cheese with more flavor (and use less!)
When you buy cheese, pick ones that have a stronger flavor so that you can use less. For example, instead of using a lot of mild cheddar in a recipe, substitute a smaller amount of a sharp cheddar. Need a good recommendation for a flavorful cheese? Our cheese islands carry cheeses from over 10 different countries, and our fabulous cheese mongers would be happy to point you in the direction of a delicious, flavorful cheese.
Another question we get frequently is why we don’t tag any cheeses as Dietitians Choice. It’s a difficult question to answer, because as you can see above, cheese can be part of a healthy diet. However, cheese is higher in saturated fat than we generally allow in our criteria, and can also be pretty high in sodium. So ultimately, we decided not to tag cheese as a category not because it isn’t healthy, but because it became difficult to find cheeses that would really meet our saturated fat and sodium standards. From a nutrition standpoint, cheese probably won’t ever be the best choice, since there are more nutrient-dense foods with less saturated fat and sodium, but we also think that it can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet.