Cheese may be the latest food to be transferred from the “bad” to the “good” list in recent years.
A new study published in the European Journal of Nutrition finds that a little cheese isn’t linked to heart disease or stroke—in fact, it may even be linked to a risk reduction for both. But don’t get too excited just yet: the levels at which cheese seemed to have a heart healthy effect were fairly low, and the benefit tended to fall off, and even reverse, at higher “doses.” That said, there may still be reasons to be optimistic that a little cheese might be good for us.
The team from China and The Netherlands looked back over data from 15 earlier studies, which together included over 200,000 participants. Most of the studies followed their participants for 10 years, and the vast majority used participants who had no heart problems at the outset. Over time, instances of coronary heart disease, stroke, and overall cardiovascular disease were tracked, and correlated with the participants’ dietary habits.
It turned out that people who ate small amounts of cheese—about 40 grams/day—had about 10% reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, 10% reduced risk of stroke, and 14% reduced risk of developing coronary heart disease than non-cheese-eaters. (For comparison, 40 grams of cheese is about the equivalent of two Kraft singles, or a little more than an ounce-size serving from a block of cheddar cheese.)
Unfortunately, for overall cardiovascular disease, eating more than 40 grams/day was not associated with much of a risk reduction—in fact, for people who ate 80 grams/day, the benefit just about disappeared. Interestingly, for coronary heart disease, eating more cheese was associated with a bit more risk reduction.
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There are some logical reasons that cheese, at least in small amounts, might be good for the heart. As the authors point out, it’s got vitamins, minerals, and protein, despite being high in total fat and saturated fat—but even saturated fat itself has been found to be not nearly as bad as once feared. Cheese also contains fatty acids that have been shown to reduce the development of plaques, at least in animals, and reduce inflammation in humans. And a “cheese intervention” in one study was shown to reduce LDL (“bad”) cholesterol and raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol.
The big caveat is that the connections in the current study were all just correlation, so other variables—like vegetable intake or the amount of exercise a person got—could theoretically explain the results.
But it’s also not the first study to show that a little cheese might be healthy. A clinical study earlier this year found no link between regular- or low-fat cheese and heart disease; there even seemed to be a slight connection with regular-fat cheese and better HDL cholesterol levels. Earlier meta-analyses have hinted that fat from dairy products may have a protective effect for the heart, metabolism, and diabetes risk.
Fat in general has been exonerated in recent years, with U.S. guidelines no longer recommending an upper limit for fat intake. And cheese, in modest amounts, may join the likes of butter, coffee, (dark) chocolate, and eggs in losing their “unhealthy” status. Even a glass of red wine seems to be good for the heart. Now, happily, you can pair your wine with a 40-gram serving of your favorite cheese.
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