Good News: Eating More Cheese May Actually Be Good for Your Heart
New research from Penn State University found the antioxidants in dairy could protect against blood vessel damage.
When you think of heart-healthy foods, walnuts, avocados and berries may come to mind, but what about Cheddar or Brie? A brand-new study from Penn State University found that cheese could one day become a member of the heart-healthy club, too. (Cue our excited squeals!)
Participants were put on four different diets for eight-day periods, each varying in sodium and dairy intake. The high-sodium diet plan caused participants to experience blood vessel dysfunction when they were avoiding dairy. However, they experienced no negative effects on the same exact diet when they were being fed four servings of cheese each day.
Billie Alba, one of the study's lead authors, said these findings may help people strike a balance between eating tasty food and minimizing the health risks that come from consuming too much sodium. The authors believe this outcome is likely due to certain antioxidants found in cheese.
While it's worth mentioning that this is a small study—and supported in part by the National Dairy Council—previous research does back up these findings for both cheese and dairy. A 2017 study from the European Journal of Nutrition found eating approximately one and a half ounces of cheese each day could reduce one's risk of heart attack and stroke. However a 2017 review of studies from the European Journal of Epidemiology found a more neutral association between high- and low-fat dairy options and risk for heart-related conditions and mortality. While they didn't show to increase one's risk, they also didn't show to reduce risk—only one of the 29 studies actually found a positive association.
We spoke with Dr. Martha Gulatti, Editor-in-Chief of CardioSmart.org and Chief of Cardiology at The University of Arizona, to get her thoughts on the study. She said that while she found it interesting—and a great read after spending a cheese-laden trip to France—she's not exactly convinced we should be adding more gouda to our grocery carts for a healthier heart.
"This is a small dietary study so it's had to draw strong conclusions," Gulatti says. "The [researchers] aren't studying the long-term effect on cardiovascular disease outcomes but rather the short-term physiological response associated with a higher risk for it."
Gulatti says oftentimes we read these studies looking for what we want to see, and using the findings of this study as a justification for adopting a cheese-heavy eating pattern could have some long-term implications. She says we still need to be mindful of our saturated fat and sodium intakes for a healthy heart—as many people already consume too much as it is. There is plenty of science-backed research out there that shows us consuming too much saturated fat and sodium will significantly increase our risk for heart-related conditions. Gulatti also mentions that the study's positive effects were only shown in men, and the women didn't really receive any benefits, which is a great basis for further study.
Related: 5 Ways to Keep Your Heart Healthy
The Bottom Line
While there's some promising research out there, we still think more needs to be done before deeming cheese as a truly heart-healthy food. We recommended eating in a pattern that falls in line with our nation's current dietary guidelines—about three (or fewer) servings of dairy per day, along with consuming 10 percent or less of your calories from saturated fat.
"There has been a lot of interesting research lately around dairy that shows compounds in milk may have unique health benefits," Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D., EatingWell's nutrition editor said. "The study was pretty small and the participants also ate a lot of cheese—four servings per day—and a high amount of sodium that is over twice the recommendation."
Valente says this study is interesting, but she isn't convinced we should all give ourselves carte blanche permission to load up on extra cheese and salt at every meal every day!
"Unfortunately, the same advice holds true—eat a variety of foods, focus on whole grains, vegetables, fruits, proteins and healthy fats—and if you like cheese, go ahead and eat some. If you do have heart health concerns, definitely speak with your doctor before making any dietary changes."