If you're following a low-carb diet, you know there are a lot of foods that are off limits. Luckily, cheese is not one of them. A staple of many American diets, cheese is allowed on most low-carb diets — but there are a few things to keep in mind before you carve yourself an extra-large slice.
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Most low-carb diets recommend consuming between 50 and 150 grams of carbohydrates a day; very low-carb diets, like the ketogenic diet and Phase 1 of the Atkins 20 diet, go as low as 20 to 25 grams a day. Cheese is naturally low in carbohydrates and high in fat, which helps it fit within these restrictions. But it's still important to remember that when it comes to carbs, not all cheeses are created equal.
Carbs in Cheese, by the Numbers
Lowest-carb cheeses: While most cheeses are relatively low in carbs, some are extremely low. For example, goat cheese, brie, camembert or gruyere contain only 0.1 gram of carbohydrates or fewer per 1-ounce serving, according to the USDA.
Other cheeses with less than 1 gram of carbs per 1-ounce serving include Tilsit, Roquefort, Gouda, blue, mozzarella, grated Parmesan and Swiss.
Highest-carb cheeses: Topping the not-so-low-carb list is Gjetost cheese — a sweet Norwegian cheese with a fudge-like texture — with 12 grams of carbs per ounce, according to the USDA. That makes Gjetost much harder to fit into a low-carb diet than the practically carb-free soft goat cheese. Part-skim ricotta cheese and reduced-fat cottage cheese are also relatively high in carbs, with more than 5 grams per half-cup serving.
It turns out that low-fat versions of cheeses, like the part-skim ricotta and reduced-fat cottage cheese, generally have a higher ratio of carbs to fat and protein, and they can contain filler ingredients to make up for what's been removed, says Amy Goss, RD, assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "When you're on a low-carb diet, you want to choose full-fat versions of cheese that haven't been manipulated or processed too much," she says.
Don't Forget About Sodium and Fat
Though it may seem like cheese can be a low-carb dieter's free for all, it's important to remember that cheese can be high in sodium. In fact, cheese is one of the top 10 contributors to sodium in the American diet, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — so if you eat too much, it will be hard to stay within the recommended limit for healthy adults of 2,300 milligrams per day.
And then there's also the issue of fat — in particular, saturated fat, which makes up a large percentage of the fat in many cheeses. Saturated fat is less heart-healthy than unsaturated fat, so it's best to limit it to no more than 10 percent of your daily calories, says Goss. Ideally, choose cheeses that are naturally lower in fat and sodium. Soft goat cheese is again a winner, since in addition to almost zero carbs, it contains just 6 grams of fat (4 grams of which are saturated) and 130 milligrams of sodium per ounce, according to the USDA.
Goat cheese is also a great choice because it packs a lot of creaminess and tang into a small portion, says Suzanne Ryman-Parker, RD, founder of the gluten-free Powerhouse Bakery at Nutrition Matters, Inc., in San Antonio, Texas. "The dangerous thing that happens when people go low-carb is that they go overboard on things like cheese," she says. "We use goat cheese a lot in our baked goods because you only need a tiny bit to provide a lot of flavor."
Camembert, whole milk mozzarella, Parmesan and Tilsit are also among the lowest-fat cheese options, each with around 6 to 7 grams of fat (four or five grams unsaturated) per ounce, according to the USDA. Lower sodium options include brie and caraway cheese, with 178 and 196 milligrams per ounce, respectively.
Can Cheese Help You Lose Weight?
Since many people who follow a low-carb diet do so in the hopes of losing weight, it's a good idea to consider the potential effects of cheese on weight loss. Study results are mixed on this topic, however: According to a March 2018 review published in the journal Foods, some research has indicated that eating full-fat dairy products may be linked to slight weight gain, while other studies have found the opposite or no association at all.
Many of the studies on dairy and weight loss also group cheese in with milk and yogurt, which can make it difficult to understand the role of each individual food. (Greek yogurt, for example, is higher in protein than cheese and contains beneficial probiotics, says Goss, which may make it better for weight loss than cheese.)
One thing nutritionists do know for sure? "It's easy to get carried away with cheese and overindulge, especially if you're only thinking about carbs," says Goss. "And it's definitely not as much about the kind of cheese as it is about how much you're eating."
One ounce of cheese is about the size of a 9-volt battery, according to the Cleveland Clinic. "We tell people to limit their cheese consumption to 3 to 4 ounces a day," says Goss, "because if you're looking to lose weight, calories really do still matter."
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