Cheese is delicious, and only a crazy person would argue with that. However, these days, it has a bit of a bad reputation where health, nutrition and weight loss are concerned. I’m here to trumpet the fact that cheese is actually quite good for you (hurray!) and I’m munching on a few lumps of extra mature Coolea while I do it (double hurray!)
In my opinion, there is far too much fear about fat in our modern minds: far too much emphasis placed on diets and “low fat” options. I’m a fearless crusader for real food, and that includes full fat dairy. Real dairy is good for you, and I refuse to believe that chemically-engineered “alternatives” are better choices in any way. (Y’know what? I can EASILY believe it’s not butter.) If you need proof of how real, full-fat dairy won’t make you gain weight, just take a look at the enviably-slim and cheese-obsessed nation of France. In fact, three of the world’s biggest cheese-consuming countries – France, Italy and Greece – have some of the lowest rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease in the Western world..
I’m not one to mince my words. The vilification of cheese (and all full-fat dairy) is stupid. Practically all of Western society’s dietary problems have worsened dramatically in the last 100 years, and they are not the result of real dairy and natural fats. If anything, the opposite is true: the more we mess with food, the worse our collective health becomes. We gain more weight, we develop more allergies and diabetes continues to spread among Western populations like something contagious. Cheese dates all the way back to the domestication of milk-producing animals, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, and has been a staple of the human diet ever since. If it’s good enough to keep all of my ancestors alive, then it’s good enough for me, thank you very much.
Now, I hate to sound like a cheese snob, but I feel like I need to point out that the following list of nutritional benefits does not apply to processed, plasticky cheese packed with preservatives and chemicals. In this article, I’m talking about real, natural cheese, made by real people. It’s also a fact that higher quality milk is better for you, so if you’re looking to pack a nutritionally-superior punch, choose milk from happy, grass-fed cows, rather than those raised on grain or corn.
Without further ado, I present to you seven solid reasons to pick up the cheese knife and live life like Liz Lemon (which, lets face it, I think we all want to do.)
1. Cheese is an excellent non-meat source of protein
In a time when many of us are looking to reduce our consumption of meat, cheese is a valuable source of protein. Cheese is a complete protein, and contains the right proportions of essential amino acids to allow our bodies to absorb all that goodness.
2. Cheese is crammed with calcium and other minerals
Cheese is packed to the brim with calcium. It’s also bursting with Vitamin D, which helps our bodies to absorb that calcium,along with folic acid, zinc, phosphorus, and Vitamins A, B2, B12, and K2. Fun fact: When consumed together with calcium, vitamins K2 and D3 are especially good at protecting your bones, brain and heart. Cheese (wonderful, wonderful cheese) contains all three. When you munch through that slice of dairy goodness, you’re also consuming conjugated linoleic acid, a proven anti-cancer agent and metabolism booster.
3. Cheese has less salt than many modern foods
These days, we’re all aware of how addictive salt is, and that we should only include a small amount in our diets. This is true. However, when you consider the amount of salt in processed food or restaurant meals, good cheese really, REALLY isn’t so bad by comparison. If you’re particularly worried about your sodium intake, try sticking to soft cheeses as these typically contain less salt than their harder, older counterparts.
4. The natural fat in cheese is a good thing
I think the thing that scares people most about cheese is its fat content, and the fact that it’s rather high in calories. The answer to this is old-fashioned and clichéd, but true nonetheless: everything in moderation. Our bodies need fat – not too much, but we do need it. Gram for gram, fat is the most potent and efficient form of energy in our diets, and is important for things like healthy hair and skin, protecting our organs against shock, promoting healthy cell function, and maintaining body temperatures; it is also a very effective way for your body to store energy for later. The fats found in cheese are high-quality natural fats, along with those omega-3 fatty acids that the science types are always banging on about. And before anyone jumps on a bandstand shouting that saturated fats are the devil, there’s actually been quite a bit of research in recent years to suggest otherwise.
It’s also true that real foods have a much better flavour than those that are heavily processed; many low-fat alternatives have to be laced with sugar in order to keep them tasting good. Once you break the cycle of eating foods packed with additives, you taste everything more potently. Fat is flavour, baby, and a real, natural artisan cheese will hit your tastebuds harder than a plastic-looking wedge of low-fat stuff, meaning you’ll need less of it to feel satisfied. The combination of protein and fat is incredibly satiating and will help to keep your appetite at bay for hours; once you’ve gobbled it all up, the protein in cheese can also slow down the absorption of carbs eaten at the same meal (or snack), making for a slower energy release.
Think about it: low-fat foods are a very recent invention, and yet obesity rates have skyrocketed in the last two decades. It doesn’t add up, and I don’t think low-fat foods are doing us any real good.
5. Cheese is good for your teeth
We all know that the calcium found in dairy foods like cheese is just as important for your teeth as it is for your bones. In fact, the combination of casein (a protein found in cheese), phosphorus and calcium in cheese may actually help replace lost minerals in your teeth. The dental benefits of cheese don’t end there, though: having a small amount of cheese after a meal can help to neutralise the build-up of acid left in your mouth after eating, as well as stimulating the production of saliva, which can help to reduce dental issues.
6. Cheese is full of good bacteria
One rant that has always stayed with me came from the mouth of Silke Cropp, one of my favourite cheesemakers here in Ireland. She pointed out how insane a concept it is to pasteurise milk – killing off all its natural, friendly bacteria – before processing it, loading it with sugar, ADDING BACK IN FRIENDLY BACTERIA and then selling it under a “probiotic” label for a vastly increased price. The more you think about it, the sillier it sounds.
Raw milk cheese contains millions of natural bacteria. These friendly little fellas can help prevent high blood pressure and cholesterol. They also have positive effects on a range of digestive problems like IBS, infectious diarrhoea, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and even colon cancer – as well as promoting regularity where toilet breaks are concerned – and there’s also evidence that maintaining high levels of good bacteria can prevent yeast infections in your ladygarden. Happy days.
I’m aware that some people are lactose intolerant, and if you’re one of those unlucky people you have my full sympathy. However, there is some evidence that the bacteria in raw milk cheese may help alleviate symptoms of lactose intolerance. While I’m on the subject, there are still many cheeses that you’ll likely be able to tolerate; alternatives to cow milk (like goats’ cheeses) are often perfectly acceptable to lactose-vulnerable bodies. Furthermore, the amount of lactose can vary widely from cheese to cheese, and natural cows’ milk cheeses contain much smaller amounts than you’d expect, because most of it is removed during the separation of curds and whey. In fact, recent studies have shown that many people diagnosed with lactose intolerance can actually tolerate one small serving of dairy a day, with no adverse symptoms. Huzzah!
7. Cheese makes you happy!
Cheese contains an amino acid called tyrosine that, when broken down in our bodies, makes us feel content. The fats in cheese also encourage our brains to produce dopamine, a natural feel-good chemical released in our brains’ “reward centres”.
It goes without saying that what you put in your body is your own choice. I will say, though, that I literally cannot remember the last cheese-less day I had, and I take every possible opportunity to smear anything and everything in real butter. This has never led to weight gain, and I’m a healthy and happy woman. It’s not rocket science: everything in moderation (I mean, put a cheeseboard under my nose and I’m not amazing at the moderation part, but cut me some slack) and look for quality. High-quality cheese might cost more than its plastic, processed counterparts, but you’ll eat less, enjoy it more, and it’ll be goddamn good for you.
And, of course, delicious. Only a crazy person would argue with that.
Are you as into real dairy as I am? If you have any thoughts on cheese and nutrition (or you’re a sucker for a bit of night cheese), leave me a comment below.
[All images featured via Shutterstock.]