Cheese eaters, rejoice! A new study conducted by Irish researchers has found that contrary to popular belief, eating a lot of cheese doesn’t really raise your cholesterol levels. It might even make you thinner.

Cheese might not be as bad for you as we thought. Image credits: Chris Buecheler.

Researchers from the University College Dublin studied the impact of cheese and dairy eating on 1500 participants from Ireland. They wanted to assess the current health guidelines, which warn that eating cheese (which is rich in saturated fats) can increase your risk of developing high blood cholesterol. What they found was that, surprisingly, participants who ate large amounts of cheese didn’t actually have higher cholesterol levels. According to the American Heart Association for instance, adults shouldn’t consume more than 300 milligrams of cholesterol per day. Since one ounce of cheddar contains 30 milligrams of cholesterol, that’s 10% of your daily intake. If you eat too much cholesterol, it accumulates in your bloodstream and eventually deposits in your arteries restricting blood flow to your heart.

“What we saw was that in the high consumers [of cheese] they had a significantly higher intake of saturated fat than the non-consumers and the low consumers and yet there was no difference in their LDL Cholesterol levels,” said Dr Emma Feeney, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and Food for Health Ireland, who was lead author on the paper.

Researchers believe that it is the mixture of nutrients that many types of cheese contain nutrients that counterbalance the increased consumption of saturated fats. Scientists even found that dairy intake was positively correlated with lower body mass index, lower percentage of body fat, lower waist size and lower blood pressure.

Pictured: Dr Emma Feeney, UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science and Food for Health Ireland, who led the research on the study that shows that eating large amounts of cheese does not raise LDL cholesterol levels.

Of course, correlation doesn’t imply causation — in other words, this doesn’t mean that cheese itself is good for your cholesterol or for your weight. Cheese eating is just a piece of the puzzle, and we have to consider the entire diet of people. More likely than not, higher dairy intake is part of a larger eating pattern that we should consider. However, if you’re a cheese fan, it’s pretty encouraging news.

“We have to consider not just the nutrients themselves but also the matrix in which we are eating them in and what the overall dietary pattern is, so not just about the food then, but the pattern of other foods we eat with them as well,” Feeney added.

Ironically, researchers also found that people who consumed low-fat yogurt and milk tended to have a higher intake of carbohydrates. However, the cause and effect may be the other way around — people who eat more carbohydrates may be more likely to consume low-fat dairy because they want to lose weight. Another surprisingly finding was that people who ate a low-fat diet tended to have higher cholesterol levels.

It would be really interesting to see this study replicated on a larger sample size, and in different parts of the world. Culture and geography have a huge impact on our nutrition, and at the moment, it’s not clear if there’s something specific to the Irish diet which led to these results or if we simply overstated the negative effects of cheese. As it is almost always the case, a good balance is key to eating a healthy diet and living a healthy life — no matter where you’re from.

Journal Reference: E L Feeney, A O’Sullivan, A P Nugent, B McNulty, J Walton, A Flynn and E R Gibney — Patterns of dairy food intake, body composition and markers of metabolic health in Ireland: results from the National Adult Nutrition SurveyNutrition & Diabetes (2017) 7, e243; doi:10.1038/nutd.2016.54

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