To Cheese or Not to Cheese, That is the Question

To cheese, or not to cheese, that is the question:
Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of saturated fats,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of carbohydrate troubles,

There has been a recent trend in the nutrition world towards recommending eating cheese as part of a healthy diet. Take the currently popular Wheat Belly book in which Dr. William Davis says, “Enjoy cheese, another wonderfully diverse food. Recall that fat is not the issue, so enjoy familiar full fat cheeses…” (p.209, Wheat Belly. 2011; Rodale).  Dr. Davis is arguing that the biggest threat to our health is eating high glycemic carbohydrates like wheat and other processed grain products.  Dr. Davis also recommends against eating any grains, rice, potatoes, legumes, and even recommends against eating more than 2 strawberries or a few wedges of apple at one sitting, as these can spike your blood sugar.  When you go this far in restricting carbohydrate intake, you are left with proteins and fats to fill out the calorie needs, so it becomes difficult to avoid recommending high fat foods like cheese.  This is especially the case when dealing with athletic men, who might need 3000 calories/day or more just to maintain their weight.

Granted, cheese is a food that can add taste to many dishes, especially in small quantities.  But I would argue that cheese contains primarily saturated fat and saturated fat is associated with a number of potential health problems, including poor heart and brain health.  Consider a recent study in the Annals of Neurology that showed that women that ate the most saturated fats had the most decline in their memory and brain function over a four year period. (Okere OI, Rosner BA, Kim DH, et al. Dietary fat types and 4-year cognitive change in community-dwelling older women. Annals of Neurology. 2012;72;124-134.) There is lots of research linking saturated fat intake with increased risk of heart disease and other chronic diseases, including various forms of cancer.

In contrast, I think it makes more sense to recommend eating modest quantities of low glycemic carbs, including legumes, some whole grains, like quinoa, and whole fruits, which are rich in phytonutrients, in modest, though not tiny quantities.  A modest serving of fruit is about 100 calories worth, such as a medium apple or a cup of strawberries.  In addition, these carbs should be eaten with proteins and healthy fats to further reduce their glycemic load.

On the other hand, adding a little low fat cheese can make a vegetable or other dish much more palatable, so I think a little cheese is o.k..  But just because cheese won’t spike your blood sugar, doesn’t mean that it is good for you.  Maintaining a consistently lower blood sugar is important, but it is not all there is to good health.  And the saturated fat content and the high calories make cheese not the healthiest of foods.

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