With Shavuot less than a week away, it’s time to take a closer look at the star of this spring time holiday – Cheese! From cheese cake to cheese blintzes to lasagna and other dairy themed dishes, there is no escaping this dairy delicacy on this holiday!
Cheese's huge popularity, in Israel and abroad, stems from its taste, versatility and large assortment. However, a shroud of controversy surrounds it with some people trying to heavily incorporate it into their diets, embracing it’s high calcium and protein content, while others use it sparingly as they fear the effects of it’s high fat and sodium content. So before chowing down on your favorite cheese dish, did you ever wonder what the real story with cheese is?
Find out now as we examine the pros and cons of cheese.
The Good News
Kicking off the “good news” list for cheese is none other than its high protein content. Consuming adequate amounts of protein is extremely important, as it provides the body with essential amino acids that are used to build muscle and tissue, synthesize hormones, and balance tissue fluid. Cheese is an excellent source of complete protein, especially for those who do not eat meat. For example, one ounce of low-fat (part skim) mozzarella has 8 grams of protein, while 100 grams of cottage cheese has 12 grams of protein – 25 percent of one’s daily recommended intake!
Cheese is also rich in calcium and phosphorus – the two most abundant minerals in the body. Once inside the body, calcium and phosphorus join together to form calcium phosphate, a major component of the mineral complex that is needed for the formation and maintenance of our bones and teeth. While both these minerals are commonly associated with proper bone growth and maintenance, they also play vital roles in many other body functions. Phosphorus, for instance, is important for practically every physiological chemical process in the body, including the growth, maintenance, and repair of all tissues and cells, as well as energy production, digestion, and the breakdown of carbohydrates, fat and protein. Calcium, meanwhile, is needed for blood clotting, nerve conduction, muscle contraction, regulation of enzyme activity, cell membrane function and blood pressure regulation.
While most people generally consume adequate amounts of phosphorus, many people do not consume enough calcium. Calcium’s role in the body is so important that when one’s dietary intake of calcium is too low, the body will draw calcium from its bones, a situation that can lead to osteoporosis after many years.
Don't worry, however, because cheese is an excellent source of this all important mineral. For example, an ounce of low-fat (part skim) mozzarella cheese offers around 20% of the one’s daily recommended intake of calcium as well as 15% of one’s daily recommended intake of phosphorus. Low fat cottage cheese, cheddar and (part skim) ricotta cheese are also all excellent sources of calcium as well as phosphorus and selenium. Cheese is also a good source of Vitamin A, riboflavin and Vitamin B12.
The bad news
While cheese may have many celebrated health benefits, it also has some downfalls – one in particular is its high saturated fat content. Saturated fat raises one’s level of LDL “bad” cholesterol, causing plaque to build up in the arteries, which in turn can lead to cardiovascular disease. Moreover, a diet rich in foods high in saturated fat, such as meat and full fat dairy products, causes chronic inflammation, a contributing factor for strokes, heart disease, arthritis and even Alzheimer’s. Full fat cheese can contain as many as six grams of saturated fat per serving, which is nearly one third of the maximum daily recommended allowance.
A common health myth is that “low fat” milk and other dairy products contain less calcium that then the full-fat versions. This rumor is not only so false, but skim (and 1%) milk and low-fat cheese actually contain more calcium than their full-fat counterparts. So if you plan on making cheese one of your main sources of calcium or protein, opt for skim or part-skim cheeses (1 or 2%). At the same time, watch out for those “no fat” products as the fat is typically replaced by tons of harmful chemicals and sodium.
Another negative aspect of cheese is its high sodium content, which makes it unhealthy for those with blood pressure problems. That being said, recent studies have shown that people who eat more low-fat (and low sodium) dairy products have a lower risk of developing high blood pressure than those who eat less low-fat dairy products.
So what’s the verdict? While cheese provides some essential nutrients, it can still be quite unhealthy. So apart from Shavuot, where you can and should indulge, use cheese in modest quantities or opt for low-fat cheese to limit the possible negative aspects on your health.