Pizza, grilled cheese, macaroni, fondue — there are countless ways to enjoy delicious cheese. Perhaps that's why the amount of cheese Americans eat each year has more than tripled since the 1970s, from an average of 11 pounds to a whopping 35 pounds each year, per Harvard Health Publishing.
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Most of that increase is due to the popularity of convenience foods like frozen pizza or macaroni and cheese, plus cheese-rich cuisines like Italian and Tex-Mex.
Of course, this dairy staple does have its merits.
"Cheese is a great source of calcium and phosphorus, and many cheeses are also a good source of protein," says Kasey Hageman, RD. "It makes a really great snack or meal when you're combining it with other foods."
However, moderation is key: The daily recommendation for dairy foods is two to three servings per day, per the USDA.
One serving of dairy equates to:
- 1.5 ounces of natural, hard cheese (like cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese)
- 2 ounces of processed cheese (like American cheese)
- ⅓ cup shredded cheese
- ½ cup ricotta cheese
- 2 cups cottage cheese
"It's super easy to overeat cheese because an ounce of cheese is about the size of your thumb, which isn't very much," Hageman says.
While it can be a healthy dietary staple in moderation, you should avoid overeating cheese because doing so can have several negative effects on your body — both in the short term and long term.
1. Too Much Cheese Can Cause Indigestion and Heartburn
If you ever feel an unsettling rumbling in your stomach after eating a lot of cheese, it could be because your body is having trouble digesting the lactose in it.
"Overeating cheese has been linked to gastrointestinal disturbances, such as bloating and gas," Hageman says. "This is especially true for individuals who may be lactose intolerant."
Lactose intolerance is often treated by eating smaller servings of dairy. People with lactose intolerance cannot fully digest the lactose (sugar) in milk, and experience diarrhea, gas and bloating after eating dairy products like cheese, per the Mayo Clinic.
"Lower-lactose cheese such as Parmesan, Swiss and cheddar cheese may be better tolerated," says Alena Kharlamenko, RD.
Too much cheese can also cause heartburn. Foods that are heartburn triggers cause the esophageal sphincter (which allows food to move into the stomach and then cinches to prevent it from coming back up) to relax and slow down digestion.
The biggest culprits tend to be foods high in fat, salt or spice, including cheese and pizza, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Eating foods like cheese in moderation and avoiding them late at night is a good strategy for preventing heartburn.
Most people who are lactose intolerant can manage the condition by simply eating dairy foods in more moderate amounts, but it’s best to speak to your doctor for a diagnosis and treatment plan specific to your condition if you're having trouble with dairy foods.
2. Cheese Is Usually High in Saturated Fat
One of cheese's main drawbacks is that it can be high in saturated fat.
Current dietary guidelines recommend keeping saturated fat to less than 10 percent of calories per day, based on evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fats is associated with lower risk of heart disease, per the USDA.
The American Heart Association (AHA) has set a more stringent limit for saturated fats, recommending a dietary pattern that includes no more than 5 to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat. That equates to no more than 120 calories or 13 grams of saturated fat per day for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Reducing saturated fat for at least two years didn't have clear effects on all-cause or cardiovascular mortality, but findings suggest it resulted in a 21-percent reduced risk of cardiovascular events (including heart disease and strokes) in a June 2015 meta-analysis of 15 randomized controlled trials in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
What's more, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated appeared to lower the risk of cardiovascular events. Researchers found no clear health benefit of replacing saturated fats with starchy foods or protein.
Some cheeses are higher than others in saturated fat. For instance, consider the varying amounts of saturated fat in a 1.5-ounce serving of these common cheeses:
To lower your risk of heart disease, replace some sources of saturated fat with sources of healthy unsaturated fats such as:
- Olive, peanut and canola oils
- Nuts and seeds
3. Eating Too Much Can Increase Your Intake of Dietary Cholesterol
Although dietary cholesterol isn't as problematic as it was once believed to be, it's still a good idea to limit how much you eat, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
For most people, dietary cholesterol has just a modest effect on how much cholesterol circulates in your blood. But for some, blood cholesterol levels can rise and drop significantly in response to the amount of cholesterol in their diet.
For these individuals, cholesterol-rich foods can have a substantial effect on cholesterol levels (right now, the only way to identify responders from non-responders to dietary cholesterol is by trial and error, so it's best to avoid over-consuming it).
"If you consume cheese with higher-fiber foods like fruits, vegetables or whole-grain foods, that fiber actually helps with not absorbing the cholesterol," Hageman says. "That's why it's important to balance your cheese with foods that have other nutrients and fiber."
The most recent dietary guidelines no longer limit the amount of cholesterol in your diet. Dietary cholesterol was not statistically significantly associated with coronary artery disease, ischemic stroke or hemorrhagic stroke in a June 2015 meta-analysis in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
It did, however, increase total blood cholesterol, including LDL cholesterol. More research is needed to draw conclusions between dietary cholesterol and heart disease risk.
A 1.5-ounce serving of cheddar cheese contains 42.2 milligrams of cholesterol, while the same amount of Swiss cheese contains 39.6 milligrams.
You don't need to count milligrams: It's best to stick to the serving size of cheese and adopt an overall healthy dietary pattern that focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat or fat-free dairy products, which will be inherently relatively low in cholesterol, per a December 2019 science advisory in the journal Circulation.
Aiming for healthy eating patterns is more likely to improve the quality of your diet and your heart health than specific cholesterol targets.
4. Cheese Can Be High in Sodium
A diet high in sodium may increase your blood pressure, one of the major risk factors for heart disease.
Adults should eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with an ideal limit of no more than 1,500 milligrams per day for most adults, per the AHA.
Americans eat so much excess sodium (more than 3,400 milligrams per day on average) that cutting back by just 1,000 milligrams per day could significantly improve blood pressure and heart health.
If you eat cheese at a particular snack or meal, you may need to limit sodium throughout the rest of the day. Take into consideration the amount of sodium in a 1.5-ounce serving of common cheeses:
- Provolone cheese: 309.7 milligrams
- Cheddar cheese: 278.2 milligrams
- Mozzarella cheese: 207 milligrams
- Swiss cheese: 79.7 milligrams
Also keep in mind that cheese is often an ingredient in convenience or snack foods that are high in sodium, such as pizza or nachos.
5. It's Associated With Prostate Cancer
Men should be especially wary of how much cheese they pack into their diet.
There may be an association between higher amounts of dairy products and increased prostate cancer risk, per an October 2019 review in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association. On the other hand, higher amounts of plant-based foods may be associated with lower prostate cancer risk.
This may have to do with increased intake of calcium, which suppresses the formation of calcitriol (a compound that inhibits the growth of prostate cancer cells), the researchers note.
Eating non-dairy animal-based foods such as meat, fish and eggs did not show the same association with increased prostate cancer risk.
6. Eating Too Much Cheese Can Lead to Weight Gain
Cheese is high in fat, which contains 9 calories per gram (in comparison, protein and carbohydrates contain 4 calories per gram).
"If you're consistently eating a lot of cheese every day, you might start to gain weight," Hageman says. "One ounce of cheese can have around 100 calories, and most people aren't eating just one ounce, so it adds up really quickly."
This can pose its own risks: Those who are overweight or obese are at increased risk for several serious diseases and health conditions, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These include:
- High blood pressure
- High LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol or high levels of triglycerides
- Type 2 diabetes
- Coronary heart disease
- Gallbladder disease
- Sleep apnea
- Several types of cancer
How to Fit Cheese Into a Healthy Diet
In moderation, cheese can offer several healthy nutrients and serve as a satiating snack.
"Cheese is a great source of calcium and protein," Kharlamenko says. "Your body uses calcium to build and maintain bone strength, but calcium also helps protect against chronic diseases like certain types of cancer, diabetes and heart disease."
To keep your diet healthy while still eating cheese, try the following strategies:
- Look for reduced-fat or low-sodium versions: Choosing healthy types of cheese, including those low in saturated fat and sodium, will benefit your diet. Just keep in mind that reduced-fat cheeses often contain about the same amount of sodium that full-fat cheeses do, so always check the nutrition facts label for both fat and sodium levels before buying.
- Go half: Eat your pizza or pasta with half the cheese. Alternatively, enjoy a sandwich without cheese and try swapping in avocado instead for a creamy texture and healthy, unsaturated fats.
- Pair up cheese: Eat cheese with high-fiber foods such as produce or whole-grain crackers.
- Stick to the serving size: Eat no more than three servings of dairy foods per day, and remember that a serving size of cheese is just 1.5 ounces for natural, hard cheese and 2 ounces for processed cheese.
- Harvard Medical School: "Say cheese?"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "All about the Dairy Group"
- Mayo Clinic: "Lactose intolerance"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "GERD Diet: Foods That Help with Acid Reflux (Heartburn)"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines: Answers to Your Questions"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fat"
- Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews: "Reduction in saturated fat intake for cardiovascular disease"
- My Food Data: "Cheddar Cheese"
- My Food Data: "Swiss Cheese"
- My Food Data: "Provolone Cheese"
- My Food Data: "Mozzarella"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Cholesterol"
- The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Dietary cholesterol and cardiovascular disease: a systematic review and meta-analysis"
- Circulation: "Dietary Cholesterol and Cardiovascular Risk: A Science Advisory From the American Heart Association"
- American Heart Association: "How much sodium should I eat per day?"
- The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association: "Effect of Plant- and Animal-Based Foods on Prostate Cancer Risk"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "The Health Effects of Overweight and Obesity"