Is cheese healthy? I get asked this question a lot, and I do want to preface it by stating that if there were a definitive answer, we’d probably know it by now. I’m not a big dairy advocate, especially not in light of the way so much of it is processed and manipulated to death, but I don’t completely avoid cheese, either. My personal view of cheese is that it’s on the “okay” list. I eat it occasionally, but it’s not a major source of my calories. But let’s consider the issue further. This post is by no means the last word on cheese, but I hope these thoughts will be helpful to you if you’re debating whether or not to keep cheese in your diet. (And I welcome your thoughts as always. Even you vegans.)
There’s no doubt Grok would have devoured a cheese plate. To be fair, Grok would have devoured nearly anything, including Captain Crunch and cupcakes. Food was hard to come by before the advent of agriculture, let alone grocery stores. Humans have been utilizing the milk of mammals outside our own species for at least 8,000 years, and possibly longer than that (probably coinciding with the shift away from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to our modern grain-based agricultural system). Milk, and its various processed varieties – e.g. sour cream and cheese – surely provided useful fat and protein for old Grok, and it follows that we can benefit as well. Humans haven’t changed significantly since the agricultural transition. However, we know that the human body did not evolve on a grain-based diet; grain was introduced after the final blueprint, as it were, had already evolved. If you can make a case against grains, you can possibly make a case against dairy as well. My personal opinion is that – to be blunt – while humans come with our own milk and don’t “need” the milk of other animals, a little cheese is not something to fret over. Really, my only major concern is the type of cheese you’re eating. You can take any “natural” food and with enough processing, dyes, flavorings, homogenizing and pasteurizing turn a perfectly dense source of fuel into empty calories. Cheese is very high in saturated fat – again, for me personally, this isn’t a huge nutritional concern – but the major issue I would caution you to consider is the heavy processing most modern day “cheese” goes through.
There’s a good amount of debate about the superiority of some cheeses vs. others. Those who follow Atkins or very high fat diets will actually go for the higher fat triple creams such as brie (I’m making myself hungry here). Others recommend only sparing amounts of aged cheese for flavor. In general I would say stay away from the processed and reduced-fat varieties and go for either raw or minimally-processed cheeses. There are plenty of raw producers now, if you do a little web searching. It’s wise to check out the facilities of the raw dairy farm if you can; though raw dairy, and cheese, is richer in nutrition by far than the pasteurized stuff, cleanliness is paramount. As for minimally processed cheeses, many European favorites fit that bill. I personally enjoy a little manchego or feta from time to time, but I’m just not a big cheese guy. Further, I really recommend yogurts and kefir over cheese. The former are fermented and highly nutritious, while the latter is processed in a way that increases acidity. Now THAT gets us into pretty interesting territory, and I think another post is warranted after you jump in.
The only other major issue here is the digestion factor, which brings us back round to our evolutionary history. Not everyone produces lactase, the enzyme necessary to digest lactose, a sugar in milk. The benefit of cheese is that it is fairly low in lactose in comparison to milk, so for die-hard dairy lovers or vegetarians, cheese may be a reasonable choice. What I don’t recommend is relying on cheese for your calcium needs or loading up your kids with it (although I think raw is probably just fine). You don’t “need” cheese. Remember, bone health is about so much more than calcium. You need a whole host of vital minerals, some of which Americans are shockingly deficient in. Moreover, reasonable sun exposure and frequent weight-bearing activity are just as important to bone health as calcium.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.