Maybe it's because cheese is so often served ever-so-sensuously next to a bottle of wine that we think of it as a diet-wrecking indulgence. But amazing news: It turns out that cheese is surprisingly good for you. Although you probably don't want to it all the time, really, every kind of cheese has some health benefits.
"Cheese has protein, calcium, vitamin D, B12, vitamin A, riboflavin, zinc, and phosphorus," explains Kim Larson, RDN and spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics. That's what makes it a go-to source of filling protein and nutrients for vegetarians — and a delicious, nutritious, and seriously versatile ingredient for the rest of us, too.
That's not all: Some cheeses come with the added benefit of probiotics. "These are the live, active bacteria that live in cheeses and have been found to support gut health," Larson says. To get those friendly bacteria, you'll want to go with cheeses that have been through the fermenting process, which are usually on the softer side (e.g. goat, blue, and feta cheeses).
Depending on your specific circumstances, however, some cheeses might be better choices than others. If, for instance, you're watching your saturated fats and sodium for heart health reasons, Larson says you're probably going to want to limit the amount of cheese you eat in general, and aged, hard cheeses in particular (e.g. parmesan). You should also opt for low-fat versions when possible. That's because those cheeses tend to be the highest in both saturated fats and sodium. But feel free to indulge in ricotta, swiss, and mascarpone cheeses, which are surprisingly low in sodium.
Unfortunately, those fresh cheeses that tend to be the lowest in sodium — ricotta, swiss, cottage cheese — are also the lowest in calcium. So don't sleep on the semi-soft and semi-hard categories, which usually have more calcium per ounce with a more reasonable amount of sodium. The semi-soft cheeses include faves such as brie, havarti, and camembert. And cheddar, swiss, and Monterey Jack are all examples of semi-hard cheeses.
Of course, one of the biggest issues with eating cheese is that's it's really freakin' delicious — and that makes it very easy to mindlessly munch away far more sodium than you realize. The CDC recommends that adults in the U.S. try to eat less than 2300 mg of sodium per day, but a single slice of cheddar contains about 170 mg and a cup of crumbled blue cheese has over 1,500 mg.
That's why this is one food for which it's especially crucial to be aware of how much you're really eating. Larson recommends using shredded versions of your favorite cheeses because that makes it easier to keep yourself from going too unintentionally generous with 'em. Sharper cheeses will also give you more flavor without having to use as much as milder cheeses.
So go ahead and pile that grilled cheese extra-high if you're feelin' it, but make sure you know how much is really going in there — and save some for your night cheese.