Cheese 101

— Written By Lethia Lee and last updated by Cindy Nance

Did you know that cheese is one of the top sources of saturated fat in the American diet? You may be asking why is this an issue? Well, saturated fat has been linked to many health issues. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, a strong body of evidence indicates that higher intake of most dietary saturated fatty acids is associated with higher levels of blood total cholesterol, and low-fatty acids is associated with higher levels of blood total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) Cholesterol. Higher total and LDL cholesterol levels are risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

Consuming less than 10 percent of calories from saturated fatty acids and replacing them with monounsaturated and /or polyunsaturated fatty acids is associated with low blood cholesterol levels, and therefore a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

My Plate adds its voice to these assertions, maintaining that saturated fats and trans fats tend to raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood. This in turn increases the risk for heart disease. To lower risk for heart disease, cut back on foods containing saturated fats and trans fats.

But how can we cut back on cheese and yet still enjoy it? Lynn Grieger RDN, CDE, CPT, CWC has some great ideas that she’d like to share with us. Cheese is not only a favorite food for many Americans, it’s also a good source of protein that fits into any meal or snack. With a wide variety of different types of cheese to choose from, consumers can pick the type that meets their taste, nutrition, and personal preference. RDNs can steer consumers toward appropriate serving sizes, as well as highlight the difference in protein, total fat, saturated fat, sodium, and calcium content so that consumers are making the healthiest choice.

I use a three-step approach to include cheese as part of a healthy diet:

  • Avoid processed cheese such as American or Cheez Whiz. These include artificial ingredients and flavorings.
  • Choose lower-fat and lower-sodium cheese if you like the flavor of a particular cheese.
  • Use smaller amounts of flavorful cheeses such as asiago or Roquefort.

Use these ideas to enjoy cheese without going overboard on calories, saturated fat, or sodium:

  • Sprinkle a small amount of intensely flavored cheese on top of a leafy green salad, or use a crumble of cheese on a sandwich.
  • Instead of using cheese as the primary flavoring in recipes, use a small amount of cheese as one of many different flavor components. For example, instead of a grilled cheese sandwich, use less cheese and add baby spinach and spicy mustard for more intense flavors.
  • Use 1 ounce of pre-packaged cheese such as mini Babybel or part-skim milk string cheese for a snack, along with a piece of fruit or some raw vegetables.

So you may be asking why cheese? Why now?

Well, it may come as no surprise that this all started by looking through the nutrition information, I couldn’t stop! Knowing the saturated fat and cholesterol in a variety of cheeses can help inform consumers and lead them to make healthy choices. So I decided to dig deeper, and this is how it came to be. I always say information is knowledge. Someone fighting a battle with high cholesterol and they have not cut their cheese consumption will continue the fight.

I have lots of nutrition education information I would love to share with you that can help you with some of the problems you are having. If you have groups that are families with children and low income I would be happy to do a series of classes with you. My contact information is at the bottom of the page. There’s a lot more information to go along with this that I can share in a group setting.

Information obtained from the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010

For more information contact Lethia Lee, EFNEP Assistant with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service at 910-592-7161.