Eating too much saturated fat can raise levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, putting you at risk for heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). But you already knew that, so you've given up your daily buttered toast breakfast and you started eating a little bit less meat.
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However, if you're still frying grilled cheese sandwiches for dinner or sneaking slices of cheddar between meals, you may be thwarting your efforts of cutting saturated fat.
The Saturated Fat in Cheese
Many animal-derived foods — think butter, red meat and skin-on poultry — naturally contain saturated fats and so do some tropical plant oils like coconut and palm oils. Processed foods can also contain these heart-harming fats, which you can spot on ingredient lists as "hydrogenated oil."
While many of our favorite foods contain saturated fats, it's important to eat them in moderation to keep your heart healthy and your weight in check. Indeed, the AHA recommends limiting your saturated fat to no more than five to six percent of total calories. To put that into hard numbers, that would mean you shouldn't get more than 13 grams of saturated fat a day on a 2,000-calorie diet. So if you eat less than 2,000 calories a day, your saturated fat intake should drop below 13 grams.
And the number one source of saturated fats in the American diet is — you guessed it — cheese. In fact, cheese makes up 8.5 percent of the total saturated fat we take in followed by pizza, which also gets most of its saturated fat content from cheese, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
To put things into perspective, here's how much saturated fat is in a 21-gram slice of seven popular cheeses:
Considering the above numbers, cheese can easily fit into the confines of a healthy diet that limits saturated fat. However, you have to think about all of the other foods you're eating that also contain saturated fat. Even healthy foods like almonds have a small amount of saturated fat. Consider everything you eat over the course of the day and you can easily eclipse your daily quota.
The Harmful Effects of Saturated Fat
You may feel like you've been pulled in different directions in recent years, as research on saturated fat's effects on health have been conflicting.
For instance, a November 2016 study in BMJ that looked at two cohort studies totaling more than 115,000 men and women found that those who ate the highest amount of saturated fat had a higher risk of suffering from heart disease compared to those who ate the lowest amount. The authors found that replacing foods higher in saturated fat with unsaturated fat was a heart-protective move.
On the other hand, a large-scale review and meta-analysis in the August 2015 BMJ issue found that saturated fat intake was not associated with death from any cause, cardiovascular disease, stroke or type 2 diabetes.
So, does this mean you can throw caution to the wind and load up on cheese? Not quite. What's clear is that the official advice hasn't changed.
"The [USDA dietary guidelines] and the AHA still advise limiting saturated fat. We still need to proceed with caution — and not eat it in abundance — until further notice," Lisa Young, PhD, RDN, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
But food is more than one nutrient. As such, cheese is more than saturated fat. It happens to have some stellar qualities, too, including being a solid source of protein and calcium, says Young. For example, a slice of cheddar has 5 grams of protein and 149 milligrams (or 15 percent of your daily value) of bone-preserving calcium.
What's more, many cheeses like mozzarella and cheddar are fermented. And some research, like a March 2018 review in the journal Foods, suggests that fermented dairy may benefit heart health thanks to the potential anti-inflammatory properties, even though it contains saturated fat.
Tips to Include Cheese in a Healthy Diet
You don't have to give it up altogether. Just follow these smart tips for including cheese in a diet that follows the recommendations on limiting saturated fat.
Watch your portions. You can make cheese go a long way by using small amounts — even a half-ounce — of bold-flavored cheeses, like sharp cheddar, feta or blue cheese.
Make it a starring protein. It's so common to build a sandwich with deli meat and cheese, but that's unnecessary, says Young. "Cheese has protein, and you don't need to put it on top of turkey, which also has protein," she says. Instead, go for the occasional cheese sandwich, ideally piled high with veggies.
Balance out your cheese. Mix full-fat varieties with reduced- or low-fat varieties to lower the saturated fat content while still enjoying your favorites, says Young. A reduced-fat slice of cheddar contains 2.7 grams of saturated fat compared to 4 grams in a full-fat slice.
Look at the whole picture. If you're having cheesy pizza, a cheese snack or a cheese sandwich that day, then now isn't the time to also eat a steak, ice cream and have a baked potato with sour cream. Be cognizant of how cheese fits into your overall eats that day — and scale back as necessary.
Try dairy-free alternatives. Plant-based cheeses are having a moment. These look remarkably like cheese and have the melt factor to boot. However, always read the labels. Some brands contain just as much or more saturated fat (from ingredients like coconut oil) as the real deal, and they also may have little to no protein. You'll also want to make sure that the one you choose is fortified with calcium so you reap a similar benefit.
Sprinkle on nutritional yeast. If you haven't experimented with "nooch" yet, make a beeline for the natural food aisle or bulk bins at your grocer. Nutritional yeast imparts a cheesy flavor to foods. Bob's Red Mill's nooch has an impressive 8 grams of protein one-quarter cup (more than regular cheese!), zero grams of saturated fat and more than 700 percent of your body's daily need for vitamin B12, a nutrient necessary for red blood cell formation, per the NIH. One downside is that it doesn't have calcium, so if you regularly use it as a sub for cheese, make sure you're getting the important mineral elsewhere.
Enjoy mindfully. There's no reason to see cheese as "bad," saturated fat and all. Young suggests making sure you're sitting down when you eat cheese in order to ensure you're fully enjoying it.
- FoodData Central: "Cheddar Cheese"
- FoodData Central: "Swiss Cheeses"
- FoodData Central: "Goat Cheese"
- FoodData Central: "American Cheese"
- FoodData Central: "Mozzarella Cheese"
- FoodData Central: "Provolone Cheese"
- FoodData Central: "Feta Cheese"
- BMJ: “Intake of Individual Saturated Fatty Acids and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in US Men and Women: Two Prospective Longitudinal Cohort Studies”
- BMJ: "Intake of Saturated and Trans Unsaturated Fatty Acids and Risk of All Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Disease, and Type 2 Diabetes: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Observational Studies”
- Foods: “Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: Do We Really Need to Be Concerned?”
- NIH: "Vitamin B12"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- AHA: "The American Heart Association Diet and Lifestyle Recommendations"