The Best and Worst Cheeses For Your Waistline
By: Holly L. Thacker, MD • Posted on June 03, 2021
You don’t need to be a Wisconsin “cheesehead” to love cheese! As women’s health specialists, we LOVE cheese for the calcium, for the bones, and for the fact that it can be part of a heart-healthy diet. Research has found that healthy food is a key factor in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and reducing weight gain. And we want to watch our waistline and avoid weight gain!
There are several types of cheese and various ways to classify cheeses:
- Hard cheeses include Parmesan, Manchego and Pecorino
- The Semi-hard cheeses include Cheddar, Gouda, Havarti and Gruyerè
- The so called “Stinky Cheeses” include the Blue Mold like Blue cheese including Gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort and Danish Blue
- White Mold Cheeses include Camembert and Brie
- Fresh cheeses include cream cheese, Feta, Mozzarella and Burrata
- Goat Cheese (made from goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk) includes Goat Brie and Chevrè
Word to Expectant Moms
Pregnant women need to avoid the soft cheeses made with unpasteurized milk, as there is a higher risk of listeria bacterial infection. Listeria infections can lead to miscarriage or stillbirth. SO during pregnancy it is best to avoid the following types of cheese:
- Camembert Blue cheese
- Mexican style cheeses, including Queso Blanco, Queso Cojita and Queso Fresco UNLESS they are marked pasteurized
How to Choose the Healthiest Cheese
The three main factors in choosing the healthiest cheeses are:
- Look for cheeses in low fat content
- Avoid processed cheeses
- Watch the sodium content
Best Fat-Free or Reduced-Fat Cheeses
1. Cottage Cheese
Cottage cheese packs a hefty dose of calcium, along with B vitamins and magnesium - all of which are important nutrients for bone and heart health. That said as a grown adult, choose the fat-free or reduced-fat versions of cottage cheese to avoid consuming excess dietary fat. And read the label to find out how much sodium each serving contains.
The amount of salt in cottage cheese can vary widely between brands. Choose the cottage cheese with the least amount of fat and sodium with the shortest ingredient list and check the expiration date! You can pair cottage cheese with sliced fruit and other superfoods, and it is easy to pack with lunches or occasionally use it as dip for chips.
You don’t need to be Italian to love ricotta and mozzarella!
Mild ricotta cheese not only tastes great, but it contains almost 1/3 of your daily protein requirement in a half-cup serving. However, traditional ricotta usually is loaded with saturated fat, so choose the lower sodium, lower fat versions of ricotta when you feel like enjoying this mild, soft cheese.
By substituting reduced-fat, lower-sodium ricotta for the full-fat version in recipes, you can indulge without feeling guilty that you’ve blown up your healthy eating plan. From veggie lasagna to lemon ricotta blueberry pancakes, these dishes are sure to be favorites amongst all ages.
Another yummy heart-healthy and bone building cheese you can indulge in regularly is fresh, part-skim mozzarella. This mild cheese is perfect for snacking on because it’s generally lower in sodium and saturated fat than many other cheese choices. As a bonus, fresh mozzarella usually contains beneficial active cultures like Lactobacillus, which promotes gut and vaginal health. Some research suggests that good gut health helps your microbiome.
Mozzarella pairs well with herbs like basil and fresh-sliced heirloom tomatoes with a drizzle of balsamic vinaigrette.
4. Reduced-Fat Cheddar Cheese
Although many un-ripened cheeses make the best choice for heart health, you can also consume harder, ripened cheeses like Cheddar, Monterey Jack and spicy Pepper Jack. Just be sure to choose reduced-fat versions over their full-fat relatives.
Ripened cheeses contain more fat than unripen varieties, so it's important to read the labels when buying these types of cheeses. Remember that a serving size for any ripened cheese is one ounce!
5. Reduced-Sodium Feta or Goat Cheese
Fresh, un-ripened cheeses like Feta and Goat cheese contain less fat than their ripened counterparts, which make them an alternative to sprinkle on veggie rich salads. But you should consider other nutritional factors besides fat content in cheese. Un-ripened cheeses often contain far more sodium (salt) than recommended for heart health, so choose lower-sodium and lower-fat versions of these otherwise heart-healthy cheeses.
Cheeses to Avoid or Serve on a Rare Occasion
1. American Cheese Slices
These slices are barely a cheese. American cheese slices are made from cheese byproducts with added fats and colorants. It is highly processed with a high sodium content. Choose natural, reduced-fat cheddar instead of American singles. Your heart and waist will thank you!
Start introducing your child early to flavorful cheeses as opposed to the American cheese slices. Kid friendly cheeses include Mild Cheddar, Swiss, Havarti, Provolone and Mozzarella.
2. Pasteurized Process Cheese Spreads
So, the orange loaf that comes in a box and boasts superb melting ability should not be on your list - at least not regularly. They are packed with sodium, fat and ooey gooey calories.
If you want a very melty cheese, and who doesn’t love fondue, it is best to opt for part-skim Mozzarella, a reduced-fat Gouda or Fontina instead. Gouda is rich in K2 which is important for bone health.
Brie and other super-soft cheeses like Camembert contain far too much fat to make them a healthy choice for routine eating. Save them for a special holiday treat and remember the pregnancy warning. Pregnant women of Hispanic descent are 24 times more likely to get listeria infections from unpasteurized soft cheeses than other adults.
These super-soft cheeses are made with lots of cream, which is what makes them soft and luscious. If you're going to enjoy Brie on a special occasion, we recommend eating it topped with fruit and crackers - it's nearly irresistible!
The Importance of Cheese and Calcium
- Cheese is rich in calcium, and calcium is necessary for bone health and proper electrical conduction for your heart and muscles.
- Calcium is a mood stabilizer. Women need more calcium in their diet during breastfeeding and when they are low in estrogen like postpartum and postmenopausal women who are not on estrogen.
- Calcium balance can only be ascertained NOT by a blood calcium level, but a 24 hour urine calcium collection ordered by your doctor.
- It is best to get calcium from your diet and cheese is a flavorful, delicious way to help you get your needed daily calcium intake. However, some women cannot ingest enough calcium from their diet, so they may need to take a calcium supplement.
- Estrogen which is good for menopausal women's hearts (especially those who have recently entered menopause) along with vitamin D help one absorb calcium.
When choosing cheese to help your calcium intake, be mindful of sodium, fat content and serving size - a few cubes of hard cheese goes a long way - and be sure to enjoy the wide variety of healthy choices!
Holly L. Thacker, MD, FACP is nationally known for her leadership in women’s health. She is the founder of the Cleveland Clinic Women’s Health Fellowship and is currently the Professor and Director of the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at Cleveland Clinic and Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Thacker is also the Executive Director of Speaking of Women’s Health and the author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Menopause. Her special interests and areas of research including menopause and related medical problems including osteoporosis, hormone therapy, breast cancer risk assessment, menstrual disorders, female sexual dysfunction and interdisciplinary women’s health.
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