Cheese often gets a bad rap due to the fact that it can be high in saturated fat. But this little fact usually doesn’t stop the passionate cheese lover from enjoying his or her favorite cheddar, Swiss or Havarti.
The good news, though, is that you may not have to feel so guilty after all for indulging your cheese craving every so often — especially if you’re worried about your cholesterol. That’s because researchers recently found that, when compared to another high-fat food — butter — cheese actually lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol.
The objective of this study was to examine the effects of two diets (one rich in cheese, the other rich in butter), equal in fat content, on certain markers of cardiovascular disease, such as blood pressure, cholesterol, C-reactive protein and insulin.
Participants ranged in age from 22 to 69 years and had no current or prior history of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or other chronic disease. Other exclusion criteria included a body mass index greater than 32, use of cholesterol medication, and abuse of alcohol or drugs. All participants also agreed to refrain from dietary supplements and dairy products, other than those that researchers supplied to them.
For the first six weeks of the intervention, the individuals were provided a hard cheese to consume as part of their regular diet (minus any other milk products). After a two-week period in which they were able to resume their normal eating habits, they were given salted butter to consume for the next six weeks (again, minus any other milk products). In both interventions, the amount of cheese and butter provided contained equal amounts of fat.
Forty-nine participants completed the study. Researchers found no differences in weight among these 49 individuals between the cheese and butter periods. They also did not observe any differences in blood pressure, C-reactive protein or insulin concentrations between the two periods. But they did notice a pretty significant different in cholesterol levels between the two.
The cheese period resulted in a 5.7% lower total cholesterol concentration and a 6.9% lower LDL cholesterol concentration, compared with the butter period. They also noticed a decrease in the protective form of HDL cholesterol in the cheese period. However, they state that the total:HDL ratio is a greater predictor of cardiovascular disease risk than HDL concentration alone, and they saw no difference in this ratio in the participants.
The reasons for these findings remain unclear, but one explanation may be an effect that the high calcium content of cheese has on the excretion of fat. In the intestines, calcium forms an insoluble substance that binds with fats and moves them out of the body more efficiently.
The researchers also said they believe that the fermentation of the cheese using various strains of L. lactis bacteria might have played a part in the reduction of cholesterol.
In conclusion, the researchers state, “Our results indicate that even a high intake of a full-fat cheese may not affect [cardiovascular disease] risk markers compared with a habitual diet with a lower content of total and saturated fat. Thus, dietary advice regarding the intake of full-fat hard cheese by persons with hypercholesterolemia may need to be revised.”
Cheese Lovers, Unite!
While cheese does have some health benefits, you can file this food under the same category you would file red wine: enjoy in moderation.
The reality is, you don’t want to eat too much fat and risk gaining weight and causing other health problems. However, if you had to choose between cheese and butter, opting for cheese may be a healthier option if you like to add extra flavor to your vegetables or potatoes.
So, the next time you do enjoy that slice of cheddar cheese on your sandwich, or that savory Swiss in your omelet, you can relax a little knowing that your cholesterol will most likely be fine — and may even go down a little.
 Hjerpsted J, Leedo E and Tholstrup T. Cheese intake in large amounts lowers LDL cholesterol concentrations compared with butter intake of equal fat content. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94:1479–84.