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Say Cheese For the Health of It!

If you have always heard that cheese is "bad" for you, this information may make you smile. Cheese can be a healthy addition to your diet when you follow a few simple guidelines.

But, what if you are trying to watch your sodium or cholesterol intake? What if you are pregnant? What if you are lactose intolerant? Be informed about cheese and happy cheese hunting!

Eating Cheese Benefits You

An ounce of cheese (equal to four dice) is considered one serving and provides 200 - 300 mg of calcium. Most adults, ages 19 to 50, need 1,000 mg of calcium per day and adults ages 50 and older need 1,200 mg of calcium per day. Since milk is one of the main ingredients, cheese also provides a good source of protein and vitamin B2, riboflavin. (Information from American Dietetic Association)

Watching Your Sodium or Cholesterol?

Even though cheese can be high in cholesterol, sodium and saturated fat, that doesn't mean you need to avoid cheese altogether. However, it is important to pay attention to the type and amount of cheese you eat.

  • If you like to eat hard cheeses like cheddar, look for "fat free," "reduced fat" or "low fat" on the label.
  • When looking for soft cheeses, low fat (1 percent), part-skim or light products are available.
  • You will even find low fat, low cholesterol cheese selections in your grocery store. They generally have 50 - 75 percent of the fat in whole milk cheeses. Experiment with some of these to find a brand you like.

One warning, when a recipe calls for melted cheese, avoid using fat-free cheeses; they don't melt consistently. Instead use a low-fat brand or reduce the amount you add to the recipe by half.

The sodium content of cheese tends to be high. Make sure to read the labels of cheese packages to determine if you are eating more than 2,400 mg of sodium a day. Foods considered high in sodium have 400 mg or more of sodium per serving.

Moderation is the key, but that means different things to different people. One good way to watch your diet is to limit the amount of whole milk cheese you consume for special occasions and regularly eat reduced fat or fat-free cheeses.

Cautions for Pregnant Women

Certain soft cheeses can become contaminated with a bacterium called Listeria. If you become sick from this particular bacterium, your baby could become sick too. To ensure your baby's safety, eat hard cheeses instead of soft, or cook soft cheeses until they are boiling (bubbling).

A brief list of soft cheeses:

  • feta
  • goat cheese
  • brie
  • camembert
  • blue-veined cheeses such as roquefort
  • Mexican style soft cheeses such as queso blanco, queso fresco, queso de hoja, queso de crema asadero.

Lactose Intolerance

There are different degrees of lactose intolerance and it varies from person to person. Some people with lactose intolerance can consume lots of dairy products before experiencing any discomfort. Others with more severe lactose intolerance experience distress after eating one bite of a product containing dairy. You should experiment with foods if you suspect you are lactose intolerant and determine your own intolerance.

So how does cheese fit into a diet of a person who is lactose intolerant? Interestingly, as cheese ages, the lactose contained in the cheese is gradually transformed into lactic acid, and lactic acid causes no distress in people who suffer from lactose intolerance. The longer a cheese is aged, the less lactose it contains. Therefore some lactose intolerant people will have no trouble (and some will have less trouble) eating aged cheeses.

Commonly aged cheeses:

  • asiago
  • cheddar
  • gruyere
  • parmesan
  • reggiano
  • romano

Soy Cheese

Some new cheese alternatives are made primarily from soy milk and come in a variety of flavors. They can be found in the produce department of some supermarkets. One warning, do not assume these products are 100 percent milk free. If you suffer from a milk allergy, you should know that the milk protein is sometimes used to make these soy-cheese products.

For more information on cheese, see the following: