Cheese has gotten a bad rap lately, mainly because when you think of cheese, you imagine Kraft American singles slapped onto buttery bread or cheeseburgers. Processed cheese is full of sodium and saturated fats — and weight loss diets are likely to avoid whole dairy products for this reason.
But the king of cheese — the average Frenchman — consumes up to 57 pounds of cheese per year, and rates of cardiovascular disease and obesity in France are far, far lower than in the U.S. France consumes more cheese than any other country in the world, yet they’re slender and fit. Scientists have dubbed this conundrum “the French paradox.”
In a new study, researchers out of the American Chemical Society have found new evidence to vouch for cheese’s health benefits — and they also believe it explains the French paradox. Aside from French people’s tendency to balance out their saturated fat consumption with plenty of walking and physical activity — as well as eating in moderation, and consuming ample fruits and vegetables — cheese may play an important role in keeping them healthy.
In the study, researchers examined urine and fecal samples from 15 healthy men. Half of them ate cheese and milk in their diets, while the other half ate a control diet with butter, but no other dairy products. The researchers found that the participants who ate cheese had higher levels of butyrate in their fecal matter — a product of gut bacteria that is often associated with a reduction in cholesterol. As a result, the authors argue, high levels of cheese — despite its fatty content — could actually benefit you, and perhaps all saturated fats aren’t bad.
It turns out that cottage cheeses and soft fermented cheeses like Gouda, some cheddars, and parmesan are all often packed with probiotics, similar to Greek yogurt. These cheeses can balance out your gut flora — which more and more research has shown is essential to maintaining good digestive health, weight, our immune system and possibly even mental health. Another recent study found that all the anti-fat sentiment out there is likely not based in any real evidence, and that moderate amounts of saturated fats found in cheese, butter, and other dairy products actually aren’t all that bad for you.
Past research contradicts this research, however. In 2013, researchers found that eating a diet heavy with cheese, meat, and dairy products certainly altered the gut microbiome — but not in a good way. Of course, participants in the study were given a pretty extreme diet (one more likely to be an American’s average diet): eggs and bacon for breakfast, then assorted meats and cheeses for lunch and dinner. In the case of the Frenchman, perhaps it’s the high amount of good cheese that they eat in addition to all the other healthy features and foods of their balanced lifestyles.
And perhaps it’s simply the type of cheese Europeans eat that makes the difference. In 2012, scientists found that Roquefort cheese — known for its mold — actually has anti-inflammatory properties. The sodium-packed Kraft singles Americans chomp down, though high in calcium, can’t say the same.
So eat all the cheese your heart desires, but pick the kinds that are high in probiotics, and eat them in balance (and moderation) with grains, fruits, vegetables, and plenty of physical activity. Go out of your comfort zone and experiment with European cheese. Your gut flora may thank you.
Source: Zheng H, Yde C, Clausen M, Kristensen M, Lorenzen J, Astrup A. Metabolomics Investigation To Shed Light on Cheese as a Possible Piece in the French Paradox Puzzle. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 2015.