It’s December, the month when it’s socially acceptable to dig into a cheese board after every meal.
Cheese has had a bit of a rough ride though. All that 1970s saturated fat propaganda would have us believe that cheese is just about the worst thing for your diet save only for lard. But it’s not half as bad as you might think.
“It isn’t the case that giving up cheese will help you lose weight. Cheese has been unfairly demonised!” says nutrition blogger Ruth Walters.
So let’s debunk some myths about this dairy delight.
1. Cheese is full of protein and vitamins
Nigel White, secretary of the British Cheese Board, says: “Cheese has been caught up in the long-running saturated-fat debate, and products that contain saturated fats have almost been demonised out of ignorance. The great thing about cheese is you’ve got high quality protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus, as well as fat-soluble vitamins. That’s a huge array of nutrients within that one small piece.”
Nutritional therapist Shani Shaker adds: “Cheese contains zinc and biotin. Zinc is a wonder nutrient, it aids tissue growth and repair, prevents and treats macular degeneration, protects skin, and helps keep nails strong. Both zinc and biotin are also important for hair health.”
2. We Brits eat less cheese than our European neighbours, yet we seem to have more “weight issues” than them
Walters says: “France and French women are a brilliant example because cheese is an important part of their diet. It’s all about portion sizes. A portion of cheese is a matchbox size – that’s where people go wrong.”
3. A small piece of cheese before you go to bed can actually help you sleep
Charles Dickens has a lot to answer for, suggesting cheese induces nightmares in A Christmas Carol, but research by the British Cheese Board found it actually help you sleep.
“We think the reason for that, and it’s not definitive, but cheese and milk contain one of the essential amino acids, a protein called tryptophan,” explains White. “When that gets into the brain, it’s broken down into two other amino acids, both of which are relaxants, so the body’s producing its own sedative to help you sleep well.”
4. A cheese board is a much better dessert than a pudding
Walters says: “I have it instead of a pudding. Cheese doesn’t spike your sugar levels like a sugary dessert does. Sugar is burnt through very quickly, but cheese will keep you full for longer.”
5.There’s very little lactose in cheese
“Would you believe me if I say that most of the cheese we eat in this country is, to all intents and purposes, lactose-free?” asks White. “That’s because lactose is a sugar, sugar’s a carbohydrate, and if you look at the carbohydrate content on the label of any cheese we make in this country, the carbohydrate content is 0.1 of a gram per 100g.”
It’s the whey, that’s often thrown away, which contains the lactose. So if you’re lactose intolerant, don’t let that keep you from the cheese.
6. Red wine doesn’t necessarily go with cheese
“Red wine with cheese is what the so-called gourmets have put forward, but for a lot of people, red wine is the most horrendous clash with cheese,” he says.
“If you’re eating an 18-month-old West Country Farmhouse Cheddar, then maybe a robust red wine would stand up to it well, but equally, I’m as happy to drink dessert wine with a really mature Cheddar, and even malt whiskey with a touch of water, which I think goes beautifully with blue Stilton. People should just experiment and find out what suits them best.”
7. Cheese makes you happy
It contains an amino acid called tyrosine, that makes us feel good and aids stress recovery. The fat in cheese encourages our bodies to produce dopamine too, a natural feel-good chemical.
8. It can help with PMS
Shaker says: “The calcium in cheese can help women with symptoms of PMS. Women given a daily calcium supplement of 1,200mg have been shown to have a reduction in PMS symptoms after three months.”
9. What’s important is how you eat it
If you put cheese over pasta and on a pizza of course you’ll put on weight. But that’s due to the white carbs (essentially pure sugar), not the cheese. A few slices as part of a veggie dish, salad or on its own, can be a really good source of protein.
10. Mediterranean cheeses are good for dieters
Parmesan is really strong and sharp so you need less in your dish, and it’s higher in calcium and lower in sodium than many other cheeses. As parmesan ages it lowers in lactose content, making it easier to digest.
Meanwhile Walters says: “There’s a lot to be said for the Mediterranean diet and it’s role in health. Organise Greek feta crumbled over a salad is healthier than hard British cheeses like cheddar for example.”
11. Cheese will keep you full
Shani Shaker says: “Although cheese is often high in saturated fat which can raise cholesterol and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease if consumed to excess, it’s a great source of protein and calcium. Protein is important as it curbs hunger and keeps you feeling satisfied after meals and snacks.”
12. Eating cheese and crackers together helps balance blood-sugar levels
Shaker adds: “When eaten with bread or crackers, the protein in cheese slows down the absorption of carbohydrates so helps balance blood-sugar levels, warding off cravings and improving mood. So as part of a well-rounded nutrition plan, and eaten in moderation it can help you to lose weight.”
Right. Where’s that cheese board?