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 a year as of January 2017, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
A good source of protein, calcium and phosphorus, cheese may certainly be considered a nutritious food. This doesn't give you a license to eat as much cheese as you want, though, because it also contains saturated fat and sodium. In fact, too much cheese in your diet can do you more harm than good.
What's a Serving of Cheese?
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), people should eat no more than three servings of dairy per day — which amounts to three 1.5-ounce servings of natural hard cheese (unprocessed) or 4.5 ounces of hard cheese per day in total. For reference, a slice of cheese usually amounts to 1 ounce. So anything more than 4.5 ounces a day is considered "too much" in our book.
If you decide to eat three servings of cheese per day, note that you should try to avoid eating any other dairy products that day, per the AHA guidelines. So, make sure to take that into account if you're planning to drink milk or have a yogurt.
Saturated Fat in Cheese
One of cheese's main drawbacks is that it contains saturated fat. A diet that's too high in saturated fat can raise your blood cholesterol, which is linked to an increased risk of life-threatening health problems such as heart attack and stroke. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests keeping your saturated fat intake to 10 percent or less of your total caloric intake to help prevent heart disease.
Ten percent is about 200 calories or 22 grams per day if you follow a 2,000-calorie diet. For perspective, an ounce of cheddar cheese contains about 6 grams of saturated fat, whereas the same amount of mozzarella has about 4 grams. Parmesan cheese contains almost 1 gram of saturated fat per tablespoon.
Dietary Cholesterol In Cheese
Limiting your intake of dietary cholesterol can help keep your levels within the normal range. Eating large amounts of cholesterol can lead to cholesterol buildup in your arteries, which raises your risk of stroke and heart disease.
According to the University of Michigan Health Service, you should eat no more than 200 milligrams of dietary cholesterol per day. If you already have high cholesterol, speak with your doctor to determine how much dietary cholesterol is safe for you to eat.
An ounce of cheddar cheese contains about 28 milligrams of cholesterol, an ounce of mozzarella has 22 milligrams and 1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese contains less than 4 milligrams.
What About the Sodium In Cheese?
Cheese is usually high in sodium, and too much of the salty stuff isn't good for your heart. A diet high in sodium can spike your blood pressure, and when that happens, it leaves you susceptible to heart attack and stroke, according to the AHA. Too much sodium may also raise your risk of kidney disease and osteoporosis. That's why the AHA recommends capping your sodium to no more than 2,300 milligrams per day.
Note that an ounce of cheddar cheese has about 186 milligrams of sodium, a 1-ounce serving of mozzarella contains 138 milligrams of sodium and a tablespoon of Parmesan cheese has 85 milligrams.
Eating Too Much Is Linked to Prostate Cancer
Men should be especially wary of how much cheese they pack into their diet. An October 2019 meta-analysis found an association between cheese and increased risk of prostate cancer, per research published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.
Researchers speculate that dairy's high calcium content may be to blame. To err on the safe side, stick to enjoying no more than three servings of cheese a day.
How to Fit Cheese Into a Healthy Diet
Bottom line: Eating cheese is A-OK in moderation. To help you cut back on the creamy stuff, try these helpful tips:
- Look for reduced-fat versions: These picks would be lower in saturated fat. But keep in mind that reduced-fat cheeses often contain about the same amount of sodium that full-fat cheeses do.
- Go half: Eat your pizza or pasta with half the cheese. Alternatively, have your burger or sandwich without cheese and try swapping in avocado instead for that creamy texture and healthy, unsaturated fats.
- USDA National Nutrient Database: "Cheese, Cheddar"
- USDA National Nutrient Database: "Cheese, Mozzarella, Whole Milk"
- USDA National Nutrient Database: "Cheese, Parmesan, Shredded"
- American Heart Association: "Get the Scoop on Sodium and Salt"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Say Cheese?"
- Centers for Disease Control: "The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020"''
- University of Michigan Health Service: "Blood Cholesterol, Blood Lipids and Heart Health"
- AHA: "Suggested Servings from Each Food Group"
- The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association: "Effect of Plant- and Animal-Based Foods on Prostate Cancer Risk"