Turns out you can definitely eat cheese on your diet. (Photo: Getty Images)
Wonder why the French have lower heart disease rates and smaller waistlines despite a diet high in saturated fat? Experts used to credit wine and lifestyle, but now, a new study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests cheese may play a role. Yes, we’re serious…and pretty ecstatic. Best of all, the study is backed up by older research corroborating cheese’s potential metabolism-revving effect.
For the study, researchers compared urine and fecal samples from people whose diets were high in either cheese or milk, or who ate a control diet with butter but no other dairy. Those who consumed cheese had higher fecal levels of butyrate—a short chain fatty acid produced by gut bacteria—compared to the other groups. These elevated butyrate levels were associated with significantly less elevation in “bad” LDL cholesterol than the control group, suggesting that cheese may be healthier for your heart than some other types of dairy. (Here’s how to hack your gut bacteria and lose up to 15 pounds in one month!)
While it’s not totally clear how butyrate works its magic, some animal studies show that this fatty acid improves insulin sensitivity, increases energy expenditure (essentially speeding up metabolism), and reduces inflammation-inducing oxidative stress, says Morten R. Clausen, PhD, study co-author. A 2009 animal study in the journal Diabetes also linked butyrate to a reduced risk of obesity.
But before you go grab a slice of American, listen up: Not all cheese is created equal. Mature cheeses such as aged cheddar, Parmesan, and Gruyère will likely be your best bet. “Butyrate comes from two places—it can come directly from the cheese and it can be produced by gut bacteria after you consume certain foods,” says Clausen. “In both cases, I would expect matured cheeses to result in higher amounts of butyrate than fresh.”
With these types of aged cheeses, Clausen says, you can also expect a higher degree of proteolysis—degradation of proteins into peptides and amino acids, which preliminary research shows can affect carbohydrate and lipid metabolism, leading to reduced fat accumulation in the body.
While the study was small, it’s still something to pay attention to, as it corroborates earlier research from 2011 showing that cheese reduces LDL cholesterol compared to butter with the same fat content. It also complements another recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which found that increased cheese intake was associated with weight loss provided it was eaten as part of a low-glycemic diet (i.e. one full of low-glycemic foods such as fruits, veggies, meats, and whole grains as opposed to high-glycemic processed and refined carbs).
So go ahead, consider this permission to shave some Parmesan on your next salad.
By Stephanie Eckelkamp