Stocking Your Healthful Fridge (Part 3)

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This week is devoted to cheese. We actually could probably spend many weeks talking about cheese because A) there are so many types of cheeses available, B) there’s a lot you can do with cheese, and C) cheese seems to be a food that many, if not most, people love to eat. In 2003, Americans ate, on average, more than 30 pounds of cheese per person (or 8.8 billion pounds, collectively), according to the California Milk Advisory Board. That’s up from 11 pounds per person in 1970. So, it seems we really love our cheese. And with more than 1,000 varieties out there, we could spend a lifetime eating cheese.

The world of cheese is pretty fascinating. Cheese-making is an art, just like wine-making. It’s thought that cheese was “discovered” about 10,000 years ago by accident. The story goes that an Arabian traveler poured milk into his sheep-stomach canteen. As he traveled, the enzymes from the stomach along with the heat from the sun curdled the milk, forming cheese curds. Over time, cheese became quite popular with the Romans, who began to perfect the art of cheese-making (we can thank the Romans for Parmesan and Pecorino!). And monasteries in the Middle Ages developed cheeses that are still popular today, including Muenster and Limburger.

Cheese may not be part of your eating plan for various reasons. First and foremost, most cheese is fairly high in fat, particularly saturated fat (the kind of fat that can raise LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol). According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), eating an ounce of regular, full-fat cheese gives you one-third of your day’s worth of saturated fat (6 grams) — and that’s just one ounce! One ounce isn’t much. A 1 ¼-inch cube of cheddar or one slice of Swiss cheese is about one ounce.

Despite the saturated fat content, you can still enjoy a piece of Vermont Cheddar now and then, but if you have a hard time stopping at just one piece, you might decide that it’s not worth it to keep it in your refrigerator. Cheese isn’t all bad, though. It provides protein, calcium, and phosphorous.

There are several varieties, or categories of cheese:

  • Fresh: ricotta, mascarpone
  • Semi-soft: Brie, Gouda
  • Semi-firm: Cheddar, Edam
  • Firm: Parmesan, Romano, Jarslberg
  • Blue-veined: Stilton, Gorgonzola

If you’re one of those people who can stop at just a small nibble, then you might decide to keep the “good stuff” in your refrigerator. Some of us, though, might find that a little too tempting! So, if you’re a cheese-lover, there are a few options for having your cheese and eating it too — all the while maintaining your waistline and keeping your heart healthy:

1. Eat just a small amount of “real” cheese.
2. Keep naturally lower-fat cheeses in your fridge.
3. Eat reduced-fat cheese.
4. Eat fat-free cheese.

The first and fourth options may not be so appealing. Option 1 requires a little bit of willpower, and if you think you might keep carving off slice after slice, why make things difficult? Option 4 is also one that I’d probably suggest nixing. One ounce of fat-free cheese contains about 30–40 calories, and little, if any, fat. On the one hand, fat-free cheese is a dieter’s dream because some taste pretty decent and the calories are low enough to indulge a little bit. On the other hand, it’s possible that, because this type of cheese is so low in calories, you could end up overcompensating and eating too much.

Another issue is that, although fat-free cheese may be fine in a sandwich or sprinkled on some chili, it really doesn’t hold up too well in cooking. Because there’s no fat in this product, it tends to not melt smoothly and develops a rather rubbery texture. I’ll leave it to you to decide whether you like fat-free cheese or not. And if you have any recommendations for how to cook with it or make it taste a little better, please share!

Next week, we’ll look at a few cheeses that you may want to keep in your fridge!

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