Find out from a nutrition expert if cheese can help you better manage your blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight.
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Cheese is one of those foods many people say they can't imagine living without. But for those with special dietary needs, knowing whether or not cheese is safe to eat can be critical for their health. While some nutrition experts are split on whether cheese and dairy should be included in a diabetes diet, science shows that it is OK to eat cheese if you have diabetes—but some types are better than others. So whether it's Cheddar, mozzarella, Parmesan or vegan cheese, read on to learn which kinds of cheese can help people with diabetes better manage their condition.

How Cheese Affects Your Blood Sugar

People who are living with diabetes must pay close attention to their food's glycemic index and carb content. GI is a numbered scale ranging from 0 to 100 that represents how quickly a particular food causes blood sugar to rise. The higher the number, the more rapidly that food increases blood sugar.

Foods with a high glycemic index tend to be high in carbohydrates. Fortunately, most cheeses contain little to no carbohydrates and rank low on the GI scale. That's good news for people with diabetes who love cheese, since low-GI foods have been shown to help people manage their type 2 diabetes and maintain a healthy weight, a significant risk factor for diabetes, per the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

However, GI is not the only thing that you should take into account. Kelsey Lorencz, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist and nutrition advisor for Fin vs. Fin, tells EatingWell, "Cheese is a great source of protein and fat, both of which can help slow down the digestion of carbohydrates and lead to a more steady rise and fall in blood sugar."

Benefits of Eating Cheese

Can Help Lower Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

According to a 2018 meta-analysis published in PLOS Medicine, several studies have shown that consuming dairy products like cheese and yogurt may help reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes. However, many kinds of cheese are high in saturated fat, and high amounts may increase your risk of heart disease. That's why it's important to opt for low-saturated-fat cheeses when possible and eat the ones with high saturated fat in moderation.

"Replacing high-fat cheese with lower-fat options like Swiss, mozzarella, provolone and ricotta could help reduce diabetes risk," states Lorencz.

Can Help You Prevent Blood Sugar Spikes

Protein is involved in many critical bodily functions, such as muscle growth, immune health and tissue repair. Additionally, protein intake can also help regulate your blood sugar and prevent spikes by blunting the absorption of carbohydrates. In addition, protein is highly satiating and helps curb your appetite, so you're less likely to overeat or crave sugary and low-nutrient foods.

Like saturated fat, the protein content of cheese varies widely. For example, 1 ounce of Parmesan cheese provides 10 grams of protein and 4.2 grams of saturated fat, while 1 ounce of sharp Cheddar cheese contains 6.7 grams of protein and 5.4 grams of saturated fat.

What to Consider

Saturated Fat and Sodium

It's known that eating high amounts of saturated fats can lead to cardiovascular disease, for which people with diabetes are at higher risk. The American Diabetes Association recommends keeping your saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your daily calories for good health, which is about 20 grams daily based on a 2,000-calorie diet. While cheese may be higher in saturated fat and sodium than many other foods, the good news is that there are several kinds of cheese lower in saturated fat that are best for people with diabetes, such as cottage cheese, ricotta and low-fat Cheddar.

Another ingredient to watch out for in cheese is sodium. Sodium should be limited in a diabetes diet since it can also lead to heart disease. Like saturated fat, the sodium content of cheese varies greatly. Be a conscious consumer and read the Nutrition Facts label to ensure you're buying cheese that's low in sodium. The American Heart Association recommends keeping your sodium intake to less than 2,300 milligrams daily, and ideally less than 1,500 mg—especially if you're at higher risk of CVD.

Dairy Allergies or Intolerances

According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 36% of U.S. adults have lactose intolerance, meaning they don't absorb lactose (a sugar found in dairy) properly. Fortunately, there are plenty of nondairy cheese substitutes available. For example, nuts, seeds and nutritional yeast can replace cheese since they're high in protein and healthy fats and low in saturated fat and sodium. Additionally, you can find soy-based vegan cheeses at most grocery stores that are dairy-free and similar in taste and protein content.

Choosing the Best Cheese for Diabetes

When it comes down to choosing one cheese over another, it's all about heart health. People with diabetes are twice as likely to develop heart disease than people who don't have diabetes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Heart health is vital for people with diabetes, as high blood sugar levels can damage blood vessels and increase the risk of heart disease," says Lorencz. "Lower-fat cheeses like Swiss, mozzarella, provolone and ricotta are better options for people with diabetes."

Tips to Include Cheese in a Healthy Diabetes Diet

If you have diabetes, an excellent way to include cheese in your diet is to combine low-fat, low-sodium cheeses with healthy foods, such as fruit and whole grains. Cheese has a minimal impact on your blood sugar, so it can be paired with higher-carb foods for a good balance. However, cheese should be consumed in moderation since it's higher in calories.

"Low-fat cheese paired with a carbohydrate like apples or crackers makes for a great balanced snack that can keep you full and regulate the digestion of carbohydrates for sustained energy and balanced blood sugar," advises Lorencz.

The Bottom Line

Cheese can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet if you have diabetes. However, people with diabetes should opt for cheeses that are low in saturated fat and sodium while high in protein. If you have diabetes, combine higher-GI foods with cheese to help regulate blood sugar and prevent spiking. In addition, like any other food, enjoy cheese in moderation to maintain a healthy balanced diet.