With its low carb content, cheese is one of the best snacks for people with diabetes. However, some cheese varieties are high in fat and calories and should be enjoyed in moderation. Diabetes statistics show obesity and diabetes are strongly connected, so it's important to watch your calorie intake and eat mindfully.
The benefits of cheese for people with diabetes are well-documented. This popular dairy food may help prevent diabetes and its complications. Rich in calcium, protein and vitamin D, it keeps your blood sugar levels within a healthy range and may improve insulin sensitivity.
Is Cheese Really Healthy?
Most types of cheese are made with casein (milk protein), milk fat, bacteria, water and salt. Their nutritional value depends on the production process and the ingredients used. Some manufacturers add herbs, spices, dried fruit and special mold cultures for extra flavor. Hundreds of cheese varieties exist, from cottage cheese to gouda, feta, Danish blue, Camembert and smoked cheese.
Some varieties are higher in fat and calories than others. One serving of grated parmesan cheese (1 ounce), for example, boasts 119 calories, 7.8 grams of fat, 3.9 grams of carbs and 8 grams of protein. Cheddar cheese has 114 calories, 6.4 grams of protein, 9.3 grams of fat and 0.9 grams of carbs per serving (1 oz). The same amount of feta cheese provides just 75 calories, 6 grams of fat, 1.1 grams of carbs and 4 grams of protein.
Read more: Nutrition of Goat Cheese vs. Feta Cheese
Despite its high fat content, cheese isn't bad for you. In fact, several studies conducted over the years have linked dairy foods to lower rates of obesity, heart disease and metabolic disorders.
For example, a September 2018 cohort study published in the Lancet assessed the effects of cheese, milk and yogurt on cardiovascular health. Researchers concluded that dairy foods don't increase the risk of cardiac events or mortality.
Another large-scale study, which appeared in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in February 2016 found that higher intakes of dairy foods may help prevent weight gain in middle-aged and older women.
Furthermore, milk and its derivatives were linked to a lower risk of bladder, breast, gastric and colorectal cancers in a review featured in the November 2016 edition of Food & Nutrition Research. Its authors point out that dairy products have a neutral effect on the risk of type 2 diabetes and may even help prevent this condition.
As the Dairy Council of California notes, cheese is a good source of calcium, zinc, protein and vitamin B12. Some varieties, such as mozzarella, provide more than 20 percent of the daily recommended calcium intake per serving (1 oz).
When consumed in moderation, cheese and other fermented dairy foods may protect against inflammation, reduce blood pressure and prevent diabetes due to their high content of bioactive lipids and peptides, as reported in a March 2018 review in the journal Foods.
Benefits of Cheese for People With Diabetes
Cheese isn't one of the most popular snacks for people with diabetes, but it should be. Compared to bagels, cookies, chips and other traditional snacks, it's significantly lower in carbs. In fact, some cheese varieties contain no carbs at all.
Cheddar cheese, for example, has less than one gram of carbs per serving. Halloumi, a type of grilled cheese, is carb-free and has only 78 calories per slice. Another good choice is brie cheese, which boasts 95 calories, 5.8 grams of protein, 7.8 grams of fat and 0.1 grams of carbs per serving (1 oz). Gruyere, paneer and Romano cheese all have around one gram of carbs per serving.
This may come up as a surprise, but cheese actually protects against diabetes and its complications. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in August 2013 found an inverse association between the consumption of dairy products, including cheese, and type 2 diabetes. As the researchers note, other studies show that dairy foods may help lower the risk of insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
Several theories exist. Scientists believe that calcium, one of the most abundant nutrients in dairy products, improves insulin response. Additionally, manufacturers often add vitamin D to dairy foods, which may reduce diabetes risk. These products also contain whey protein, magnesium and other nutrients that may protect against this disease.
A research paper featured in PLOS One in September 2013 suggests that higher dairy product intakes may help prevent diabetes. Scientists have found that eating 200 grams (7 oz) of dairy foods per day can reduce diabetes risk by a whopping 6 percent.
Not All Cheeses Are Equal
As you see, the benefit of cheese is backed up by science. However, you still need to watch your portion sizes and energy intake.
Some cheese varieties are high in calories and may contribute to obesity, a major risk factor for diabetes and insulin resistance. Ideally, choose low-calorie varieties like cheddar cheese, Camembert, feta, Emmentaler, fresh mozzarella and low-fat cottage cheese.
Read more: Is Feta Cheese Healthy?
Consume cheese in moderation. Despite its potential health benefits, this dairy product is calorie-dense and may lead to weight gain. Additionally, some cheese varieties are high in sodium and can increase your blood pressure.
Beware that many types of cheese are loaded with sodium, which may increase blood pressure and affect cardiovascular health. According to Hopkins Medicine, the risk of developing heart disease is four times higher in people with diabetes with elevated blood pressure. Therefore, it's important to limit your sodium intake, especially if you have diabetes.
Smoked cheddar cheese, for instance, contains 320 milligrams of sodium per serving (1 oz). The same amount of regular cheddar cheese has only 185 milligrams of sodium. When consumed in excess, this mineral not only raises blood pressure but also causes fluid retention.
Read more: Does Cheese Cause High Cholesterol?
Steer clear of processed cheeses, such as American cheese, pizza cheese and cream cheese. These products contain refined vegetable oils, emulsifiers, trans fats, added sugars and synthetic flavors. Some varieties have mayo listed first on the ingredients list.
If, for some reason, you prefer to avoid dairy, opt for vegan cheeses. Tofu gouda, baked cashew mozzarella, raw cashew almond cheese, cashew blue cheese and almond parmesan can be a healthy addition to your daily meals. The best part is that you can prepare them at home using a few basic ingredients.
Cashew cheese, for instance, is ready in minutes. Blend one cup of raw cashews (soaked overnight), two tablespoons of lemon juice, two tablespoons of nutritional yeast, salt and pepper until smooth. Add water if necessary. Season with garlic or onion powder, paprika, basil, oregano and other herbs or spices.
Beware, though, that vegan cheese has a completely different nutritional value than real cheese.
- USDA: "Grated Parmesan Cheese"
- USDA: "Cheddar Cheese"
- USDA: "Feta Cheese"
- The Lancet: "Association of Dairy Intake With Cardiovascular Disease and Mortality in 21 Countries From Five Continents (Pure): A Prospective Cohort Study"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dairy Consumption in Association With Weight Change and Risk of Becoming Overweight or Obese in Middle-Aged and Older Women: A Prospective Cohort Study"
- Food & Nutrition Research: "Milk and Dairy Products: Good or Bad for Human Health? An Assessment of the Totality of Scientific Evidence"
- Dairy Council of California: "Nutrients in Cheese"
- MDPI: "Dairy Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: Do We Really Need to Be Concerned?"
- USDA: "Halloumi Cheese"
- USDA: "Brie Cheese"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dairy Products and the Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: A Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis of Cohort Studies"
- PLOS One: "Dairy Products Consumption and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes: Systematic Review and Dose-Response Meta-Analysis"
- NCBI: "Mechanism Linking Diabetes Mellitus and Obesity"
- Hopkins Medicine: "Diabetes and High Blood Pressure"
- USDA: "Smoked Cheddar"
- American Journal of Kidney Diseases: "An Increasingly Complex Relationship Between Salt and Water"
- USDA: "Pimento Cheese Spread"