Monday, November 21, 2011

Cheese Given the Green Light for Heart Health?

Going against the grain in any capacity can be risky and uncomfortable. Now consider that your reputation is on the line and that you're trying to win over a world of skeptics. Oftentimes, that's the harsh reality of research. But slowly, as more scholars and researchers take the plunge to challenge the existing nutrition dogma that has for so long been accepted, we're learning that lots of formerly "blacklisted" foods are really just fine for our health after all.

Just as we've learned that the longstanding messaging around lean red meat was wrong (it has about the same effect on blood cholesterol levels as lean white meats and no association with colorectal cancer in moderate daily amounts e.g. Canada's Food Guide servings), we're learning that scientists are coming to similar conclusions about another food containing natural saturated fats: cheese.

In a new study from the University of Copenhagen, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Danish researchers found that the daily consumption of hard cheese did not raise LDL ("bad" cholesterol) or total cholesterol levels in nearly 50 healthy participants.

For two separate 6 week periods, participants consumed 13% of their daily calories as fat from either cheese or butter. In between, there was a 2 week 'wash out' period where the participants followed their regular, lower-fat diets. Compared with their baseline diets, lower in total and saturated fats, the participants' LDL and total cholesterol levels showed no increase when eating cheese daily; there was no difference. However, when they switched to butter, their cholesterol levels rose about 7% on average.

The researchers aren't totally clear yet as to why cheese and butter could have such different impacts on human blood cholesterol levels, but there could really be any number of reasons for the difference observed. For one, the researchers pointed out that cheese has more calcium than butter, which has been suggested to bind and excrete fat. In the study, however, fecal fat excretion was measured and was not shown to be different across the conditions. Other possibilities could include the foods that were paired with the butter or cheese and the participants' overall dietary patterns; cheese and butter are used and enjoyed in different ways.

The bottom line once again is to realize that in the end, humans were meant to eat whole foods in their natural forms. If we focus on whole foods that by default are rich in the nutrients our bodies need, we will naturally move towards a dietary pattern that promotes good health. Milk is highly nutrient rich, natural and good for us. Milk also contains fat, and it makes good sense that products made from milk should also contain these fats so as not to manipulate what nature provided us with. Perhaps butter isn't as stellar for us in terms of our blood cholesterol levels based on the findings of this study, but on that note, butter doesn't contain as many nutrients as cheese, and that might suggest that we should eat less of it than we would cheese anyways. Besides, almost any food can fit into a healthy dietary pattern so long as moderation is the rule. So really, what else is new?