Slicing Up Heart-Healthy Benefits of Cheese

by Laura Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN

Did you know that heart disease is the nation’s leading killer of both men and women and claims more lives than all forms of cancer combined? Luckily, through lifestyle changes such as losing weight, exercising and improving our diet, we can reduce our risk of heart disease. Dr. Robert Eckel, past president of the American Heart Association and committee member for the USDA Dietary Guidelines, says, “Eating a healthy diet is not about good foods and bad foods in isolation from the rest of your diet-it’s about the overall diet.” Adequate physical activity and abstinence from smoking are also crucial lifestyle approaches in the interest of disease prevention, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Saturated Fat and Heart Disease
Let’s talk heart health and food, specifically cheese. Most everybody loves cheese, but it gets some bad press in terms of heart health. Most health professionals place an emphasis on avoiding saturated fats such as those in cheese. However, as is always the case with evolving science, we don’t know what we don’t know until we learn something new.
Saturated fat has long been demonized as “the fat to fear,” because it was assumed that all foods containing this type of fat equally raise our levels of LDL (the so-called “bad cholesterol” in our blood), which is at the root of heart disease and strokes. Saturated fat is like a family of fats and there are a number of different kinds of fats in that family.
While these fats share some common characteristics, nutrition scientists have discovered that these fats function in unique ways based on their specific type and the food source. The science shows that there are different structures of these fats in different foods, and that their structure, along with the presence of other nutrients within a given food, determines their function in the body. In other words, we can no longer label all saturated fat as a single nutrient to be avoided; we must look at the specific type of saturated fat and the type of food where it’s found.

Cheesy Perks
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that “cheese, despite its high content of saturated fat, has a neutral or even beneficial effect on total cholesterol and/or LDL cholesterol” when other dietary factors align with healthy eating guidelines. A 2014 article published in the same journal also indicated a profound finding: The calcium in cheese may literally be reducing the amount of saturated fat in the cheese that our bodies absorb. Let’s not forget the often-overlooked fact that sometimes heart disease and strokes, like any diet-related conditions, are not entirely about what we’re eating, but also about what we’re missing.
Abundant scientific research supports the importance of eating foods rich in minerals such as potassium and calcium for protection of our heart and blood vessels. Dairy foods like cheese are rich sources of these essential nutrients. This may help explain why a meta-analysis published in 2014 concluded that it’s plausible that full-fat dairy foods, including milk, cheese and yogurt, do not contribute to cardiovascular disease risk, and indeed may be inversely associated with it.

Since we usually don’t eat foods in isolation, we should consider each choice in the context of all the nutrients one food has to offer. Perhaps cheese, with its high-quality protein and beneficial vitamins and minerals, provides more benefits than was previously acknowledged when it’s consumed as part of a healthy-eating pattern. The concept of “everything in moderation” is all about how we can derive both benefit and joy from our eating experiences … and that’s something you can take to heart.

 

Buxenbaum, MPH, RD, LDN, assistant director of nutrition affairs of the Southeast United Dairy Industry Association, Inc., can be reached at 800-343-4693 or lbuxenbaum@sedairy.org