If you were to line up a list of “unhealthy” foods in the popular imagination, cheese would probably feature near the top. This dairy favourite historically has been demonised for its high saturated fat content and link to raised cholesterol. Today, though, cheese is enjoying something of a reprieve.
New research from the National Centre for Geriatrics and Gerontology in Obu looked at the dietary habits of more than 1,500 people over the age of 65 in Tokyo. The study found that in cognitive tests, the average score of those who ate cheese was slightly higher than those who didn’t.
Cheese consumption was also linked to lower BMI (Body Mass Index) and blood pressure, faster walking speed and a more varied diet overall. Researchers were unable to identify precisely why cheese was linked to the health benefits: one theory is that people who ate cheese simply ate better overall. However, the researchers did note that it was possible cheese may contain nutrients which “support cognitive function”.
So could there be more health benefits to eating cheese than traditionally thought?
“Cheese has some negatives as it’s high in saturated fats which increase ‘bad’ cholesterol which can lead to heart attacks and strokes,” says registered nutritionist Jenna Hope. “So you don’t want to overeat it. On the other hand, it is a good source of protein and it can be very rich in micronutrients, so it can be good for you as part of a balanced diet.”
Dietitian Dr Duane Mellor is senior teaching fellow at Aston University and spokesman for the British Dietetic Association spokesman. “We do need some fat in our diets,” says Mellor. “Fat is a key source of energy at times of food hardship and it provides padding to protect our vital organs, but it’s important for much more than just that. Cholesterol is also used to make steroid hormones the body needs, including vitamin D, sex hormones and cortisol. Finally it helps transport those vitamins and minerals such as vitamins A, D, E and K, which are fat soluble, around the body.”
Alongside offering the vital fats we need, cheese also contains calcium, which is important for bone strength, and B vitamins – including B2 and B12, which help the body release energy from food.
Even though it does contain saturated fats, cheese might not be as dangerous for you as other sources of saturated fat such as red meat. In fact, a 2021 Cambridge study found that people eating dairy were less likely to get cardiovascular illnesses than those who were eating the same amount of saturated fat from red meat. “Yoghurt and cheese contain vitamin K2 and fermentation products that previous studies have linked to lower heart disease risk,” the study’s co-author Prof Nita Forouhi told the Telegraph.
Next time you visit the cheese aisle, which products should you aim for, and which leave on the shelf?
Fermented cheese leads to better gut (and brain) health
“Fermented cheese, such as Gruyère, blue and Gouda (pictured above), are made with bacteria including lactococci, streptococci and lactobacilli. These colonise the gut and contribute to higher levels of ‘good bacteria’ in the gut which can aid digestion,” says Hope.
“Encouraging these ‘good bacteria’ can also reduce inflammation. This is important as, left unchecked, inflammation can damage cells and cause internal scarring.” Butyrate, a short-chain fatty acid produced by your gut microbes, is known to help reduce the risk of dementia.
“We’re not quite sure why, but it might be because it reduces inflammation in the brain which may help with long-term brain health and cognitive function,” says Hope.
Best cheese for gut health: Fermented cheeses such as blue, Gruyère and Gouda
Healthy dairy builds stronger bones
“Calcium is really abundant in most cheeses because they’re made with milk which is produced by cows to promote bone development in their calves, and that’s really important in building strong bones and teeth for us too,” says Hope.
Harder cheeses have higher amounts of calcium. In terms of cheeses you’d find in a supermarket, the highest calcium content is found in parmesan (pictured above) which contains 19 per cent of the daily recommended amount of calcium in each 30g serving. In contrast, a softer cheese like brie contains only 4 per cent.
Best cheese for calcium content: Parmesan
Protein from cheese helps build muscle
While we tend to get most of our protein from meat, cheese can also be a good source, especially if you are vegetarian. “I would recommend softer cheeses like mozzarella, feta or cottage cheese,” says Hope. “They’re lower in saturated fats and thus lower in calories and a good source of protein. Those are the ones we want to incorporate more into our diets.”
Cottage (pictured) and mozzarella cheeses are among the highest in protein offering, along with parmesan. Both supply about 3-4g of protein per 30g serving, although the latter can contain quite a high salt content so it is best consumed in smaller quantities.
Best cheese for protein content: Cottage cheese or mozzarella
Some cheeses contain iodine, which is important for cognitive ability
Iodine is a mineral which the thyroid gland uses to make hormones thyroxine and triiodothyronine, which assist with the creation of proteins and enzyme activity, specifically in the brain. “Another reason that the Japanese study may have linked cheese to brain health might be that there’s also iodine in some cheeses which is really important for cognitive function,” says Hope.
Best cheese for iodine content: Cheddar (pictured above)
The cheeses to avoid
While cheese has many health benefits, you do need to moderate your intake. Both Mellor and Hope advise people try not to eat more than 30-40g of cheese per day, particularly hard cheeses such as Cheddar, parmesan orWensleydale. “We used to tell people to eat a portion the size of a match box, but match boxes can be different sizes, so we now suggest half the size of an iPhone,” says Mellor.
Softer cheeses such as cottage cheese are lower in saturated fats, so Hope says it would not be unhealthy to eat 100g per day of similar cheeses. “The main thing you have to be mindful of is salt,” says Mellor. “That tends to be mostly in blue cheese or stilton styles. Similarly, hard cheeses like cheddar and Red Leicester can be high in saturated fats.” Hope adds: “Mass-produced supermarket cheddar may potentially contain more hormones that have been linked to cancer so it’s important not to overdo it.”