The Healthiest Cheese Options to Support Performance

We know what you’re thinking: “Isn’t cheese loaded with calories and fat?” And while the answer is yes, cheese can go heavy on the calories and fat from dairy, it’s also food that can absolutely be part of a well-balanced diet.

When it comes to choosing cheese, you simply want to stroll past the bricks of processed options and the plastic-wrapped slices of American and go for options that offer a few more body benefits per delicious bite.

Considering the average American consumes nearly 37 pounds of cheese per year, according to 2017 data from the USDA, you might as well learn a little more about making the most of each ounce and how to include cheese on your performance-fueling plate. Here’s what to know about choosing the healthiest cheese and the benefits of doing so.

How is cheese made?

Cheese is made from milk, salt, “good” bacteria that triggers fermentation and the enzyme rennet, per the National Dairy Council. Each cheesemaker might add additional ingredients and has a different aging method, hence the variety in cheese nutrition information, flavors, and textures.

Three main processing details influence those cheese attributes:

  • The type of milk: cow’s milk errs on the buttery and rich side; goat’s milk is sharp and tangy; sheep’s milk is nutty and mild
  • Where it’s made: weather patterns, diet of the animal, timing of milking and more all impact the flavor of a finished cheese
  • The consistency: moisture (the humidity of the aging environment) and the aging process itself impacts the texture of the cheese.

    There are six main cheese categories:

    • Hard: aged gouda, aged cheddar, asiago, Grana Padano, manchego, Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino
    • Semi-hard: colby, gouda, gruyere, havarti, mild cheddar
    • White mold: brie, Camembert
    • Blue mold: gorgonzola, Stilton, Roquefort
    • Fresh: burrata, cream cheese, feta, fresh mozzarella
    • Goat: blue goat, chevre, goat brie

      What are the health benefits of cheese?

      Eating cheese does offer a few advantages for your health:

      • Good source of calcium
      • Good source of protein
      • Aged cheeses contain probiotics, which support gut health
      • Full-fat dairy may offer anti-inflammatory benefits
      • Lower risk for cavities
      • Bolsters bone and muscle health, thanks to calcium, vitamins A, vitamin D, vitamin K, and zinc

        Plus, there’s a pleasure factor that comes with eating cheese, considering how delicious it is, says Michelle Hyman, RD, a registered dietitian at Simple Solutions Weight Loss in New York City.

        What to look for in a healthy cheese

        In general, you’ll score maximum satisfaction and nutrition per bite by opting for any real cheese. Those made with 100 percent grass-fed milk often contain more of a certain type of omega-3 fatty acids called conjugated linoleic acid (CLA). Adequate intake of this healthy fat might lower risk for cardiovascular disease, says Frances Largeman-Roth, RDN, a Dobbs Ferry, New York-based nutrition expert and author of The Smoothie Plan.

        Most varieties of cheese average about 100 calories per ounce—meaning they’re pretty calorie-dense, offering up a lot of energy for a small amount of food. That’s good for cyclists, considering you need calories for energy to push through long rides.

        Sodium is also a nutrient to keep an eye on in cheese, as many varieties can pack in the salt. Hyman suggests aiming for less than 200 milligrams of sodium if you’ve been diagnosed with or have a family history of high blood pressure. (Some cheese varieties have more than double that amount per serving.) Sodium is also an electrolyte though, so it’s not bad to take in some sodium, especially if you’re doing a lot of sweaty riding.

        Finally, in general, you want to watch your saturated fat intake, which you’ll find in many cheeses. Too much saturated fat can increase bad cholesterol and potentially harm heart health. The American Heart Association recommends keeping saturated fat intake to 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories.

        Otherwise, stock up on one or all of these healthiest cheese options during your next supermarket run.

        5 of the healthiest cheeses to buy

        Specific product nutrition information may vary for these cheeses, depending on brand, aging and more, so consider these macronutrient and micronutrient estimates from the USDA’s FoodData Central as a general guide.

        Highest in protein: cottage cheese

        Remarkably versatile—try it in everything from lasagna casseroles to smoothies to parfaits—cottage cheese tops the fromage competition in terms of muscle-building power.

        Nutrition facts per ½-cup serving of 2% cottage cheese:

        • Calories: 92
        • Fat: 3 g (1 g saturated fat)
        • Protein: 12 g
        • Carbohydrates: 5 g
        • Sodium: 348 mg
        • Sugars: 4.5 g
        • Calcium: 125 mg

          Lowest in saturated fat: mozzarella

          Besides cottage cheese, this salad star and pizza hero ranks lowest in saturated fat if you opt for its still rich-tasting part-skim rendition, Hyman says.

          Nutrition facts per 1-ounce serving of part-skim mozzarella cheese:

          • Calories: 72
          • Fat: 4.5 g (3 g saturated fat)
          • Protein: 7 g
          • Carbohydrates: 1 g
          • Sodium: 348 mg
          • Sugars: 0.5 g
          • Calcium: 222 mg

            Highest in calcium: Parmesan

            A little Parmesan goes a long way, especially if you seek out well-aged versions of the cheese. It offers a lot of nutty flavor per bite, plus plenty of calcium.

            Nutrition facts for a 1-ounce serving of Parmesan cheese:

            • Calories: 111
            • Fat: 7 g (4 g saturated fat)
            • Protein: 10 g
            • Carbohydrates: 1 g
            • Sodium: 335 mg
            • Sugars: 0 g
            • Calcium: 335 mg

              Lowest in lactose: goat cheese

              Goat cheese contains A2 casein, a form of the milk protein that might lead to less digestive distress than the casein naturally found in cow’s milk. (More and more A2 cow’s milks are entering the market, but these are the exception rather than the rule.)

              Nutrition facts for a 1-ounce serving of soft goat cheese:

              • Calories: 75
              • Fat: 6 g (4 g saturated fat)
              • Protein: 5 g
              • Carbohydrates: 0 g
              • Sodium: 130 mg
              • Sugars: 0 g
              • Calcium: 40 mg

                Lowest in sodium: Swiss

                Nope, this isn’t just because of the holes! Ounce-for-ounce, Swiss ranks as the healthiest cheese if you’re watching your sodium intake.

                Nutrition facts for a 1-ounce serving of Swiss cheese:

                • Calories: 111
                • Fat: 9 g (5 g saturated fat)
                • Protein: 8 g
                • Carbohydrates: 0 g
                • Sodium: 53 mg
                • Sugars: 0 g
                • Calcium: 252 mg

                  How to add cheese to a healthy diet

                  The current USDA Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest adults ages 19 to 59 eat 3-cup equivalents of dairy per day, regardless of the overall calories in your daily diet.

                  “However, that doesn’t mean the guidelines recommend all of your dairy equivalents come from cheese. A 1-cup equivalent for cheese is listed as 1.5 ounces of natural cheese,” Hyman says. “The guidelines recommend mostly skim or low-fat dairy choices.”

                  In addition to cheese and milk, yogurt and soy milk also count as dairy equivalents, so aim to mix things up and stick to no more than one serving of these healthiest cheeses per day.

                  “One serving a day can definitely fit into a healthy eating pattern,” Largeman-Roth says. “Cheese is so flavorful, you don’t need much to add a boost to a meal.”

                  Here’s how to include these healthiest cheeses as part of your meal plan:

                  • Add slices to a cheese board alongside fruit, nuts, jams, mustards, olives, and crackers
                  • Use cheese as a garnish for pasta, a salad or soup, or as a topping for a vegetable-loaded pizza
                  • Pair a wedge with a piece of fruit for a snack
                  • Create a box lunch with cheese cubes, whole grain crackers, hummus, and crudites
                  • Stir crumbled cheese into a frittata or egg scramble
                  • Layer cheese inside a whole grain sandwich
                  • Blend a scoop of cottage cheese into a smoothie or stir into marinara sauce to enjoy with pasta

                    Is there anyone who shouldn’t eat cheese?

                    Some people are allergic to a protein in dairy called casein. A typical reaction involves rashes, acne, headaches, sinus congestion, and inflammation. If this sounds like you, talk to you doctor about possible allergies.

                    Of course those with lactose intolerance, also want to avoid certain cheeses. Lactose intolerance refers to when the body has a hard time breaking down or digesting the lactose in a dairy product. This tends to trigger more digestive issues after consuming dairy, including bloating, gas, and diarrhea.

                    If you really adore cheese but have been diagnosed with or think you might have lactose intolerance, listen up: “Certain cheeses may be tolerated in varying amounts depending on the individual since they contain less lactose than others,” Hyman explains.

                    For example, “aged cheese is much lower in lactose, so many people who can’t tolerate liquid milk or soft cheese can eat aged cheeses, like cheddar, with no issue,” says Largeman-Roth.

                    The bottom line on the healthiest cheese for cyclists

                    While full-fat dairy products, including cheese, can be fairly high in saturated fat and sodium, they bring enough positive qualities to have a spot on your plate, at least in moderation. Aim for one serving per day, which equals 1.5 ounces of hard cheese, ¼ cup of ricotta cheese, or ½ cup cottage cheese, and pair it with fiber-rich carbohydrates to enhance the filling factor and aid in digestion.

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