Pass the Cheese, Please

By , Melissa Rudy, Health & Fitness Journalist

Anyone who has ever enjoyed creamy mac-and-cheese, a gooey grilled cheese sandwich or a perfectly cooked quesadilla knows that in certain recipes, there's simply no substitute for cheese. And with thousands of variations—from the classic American to crumbly gouda to vegan options—it's one of the world's most versatile foods.

Unfortunately, cheese has a few strikes against it, such as high saturated fat content, high calories and, for some, the potential for digestive difficulties. Despite those drawbacks, each American eats an average of 23 pounds of cheese each year.

The good news? The benefits go beyond tantalizing taste. When enjoyed in moderation, cheese can actually improve your physical and mental health in a myriad of mouth-watering ways.

Benefit #1: Gives bones a boost

Osteoporosis doesn't discriminate: Approximately 10 million Americans (80 percent of whom are women) experience bone loss or weakness that increases the chances of fractures. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, calcium and Vitamin D are the two most important nutrients for preserving bone health—and cheese has those in spades.

  • Our cheese choice: Thirty grams of Swiss cheese contain more than one-third of the recommended daily serving of calcium, so add a slice to your sandwich for a stronger skeleton. Parmesan is also calcium-rich; just three tablespoons will get you nearly halfway to the daily calcium quota. Try it on our Baked Chicken Parmesan with Roasted Summer Squash recipe.

Benefit #2: Fast-tracks weight loss

It may seem counterintuitive, but when you choose the right types—and incorporate them as an occasional treat rather than an all-day staple—cheese can actually help expedite weight loss efforts. The magic ingredient appears to be butyrate, a fatty acid that helps speed up metabolism and reduces the risk of obesity.

In a clinical trial published in the Journal of Nutrition, overweight and obese women who combined regular exercise with a low-calorie, high-dairy diet that included cheese lost more fat over a 16-week period than women who ate less dairy.

  • Our cheese choice: It's hard to imagine a margherita pizza or an eggplant parmesan without mozzarella—and luckily, thanks to its relatively low calorie count, you don't have to. Although it only has about 72 calories per 1-oz. serving, mozzarella packs plenty of satisfying protein, which leaves you feeling fuller longer and reduces the chances of overeating. Plus, its high calcium content provides a fat-burning boost. Cottage cheese is another wise choice for calorie-counters, with just a little over 1 gram of fat per serving. This veggie pizza is delicious and nutritious.

Benefit #3: Dials down the risk of diabetes

More than 29 million Americans are living with Type 2 diabetes. Although there's no known cure, some preventative measures can reduce the chances of developing the disease—and a dairy-rich diet could be among them. According to a Swedish study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, dairy foods were shown to reduce the risk of diabetes, particularly among cheese-eating females. Likewise, a Brazilian study found that cheese's high levels of protein and saturated fat help to metabolize glucose and prevent blood sugar spikes.

  • Our cheese choice: Camembert cheese is naturally high in butyrate, the beneficial fatty acid that has been linked to improved insulin sensitivity. This versatile cheese can enhance any dish, from quiches and casseroles to salads and pastas.

Benefit #4: Improves heart health

If cheese holds a special place in your heart, you'll be happy to hear that you may be at a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. In a 12-year study published in the Journal of Nutrition, women who consumed high amounts of cheese had a 25 percent lower risk of developing heart troubles. There's also been some research into the "French paradox," which suggests there may be a link between the French population's high cheese consumption and low rate of heart conditions. In a Danish study, the authors found that dairy eaters produced lower levels of TMAO, a molecule that is thought to trigger cardiovascular disease, and higher levels of butyrate acid, which is also an anti-inflammatory.                                              

  • Our cheese choice: Aged cheeses with some mold content, such as Roquefort, are particularly effective at fighting the bacteria that contributes to high cholesterol levels. Try our Pear, Walnut, and Roquefort Cheese Salad.

Benefit #5: Keeps cavities in check

Say cheese! As if it didn't already give you enough to smile about, this multi-tasking cuisine could also protect your pearly whites. Researchers from the Academy of General Dentistry found the calcium-rich food may help prevent cavities. Compared to milk and yogurt eaters, the cheese-eating group showed an increase in pH levels in the mouth, which may help fight cavities. Cheese also contains compounds that bond to the surface of the tooth, forming a protective layer and sealing out acids. Plus, an increase of alkaline saliva washes away debris and slows down plaque formation. "Not only are dairy products a healthy alternative to carb- or sugar-filled snacks, they also may be considered as a preventive measure against cavities," Seung-Hee Rhee, DDS, FAGD, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, said.

In addition to adding flavor, texture and color to any recipe, regular servings of cheese may provide head-to-toe health benefits. To maximize the perks without maxing out your fat consumption, choose cheeses that are low in fat and limit portion sizes.

What are your favorite ways to incorporate cheese into your diet?