Should We Put the Brakes on Eating Cheese?

April 12, 2010 in Blog Recipes, Diabetic Menu Item, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

I’m wondering if a big part of the connection between fast food and weight gain has to do with covering so much restaurant and fast food with cheese. We have heard the term “obesity epidemic” in this country often enough. I was thinking about cheeseburgers; pizza; Mexican (American-style) chain restaurants, you know the type – the ones that cover your food with cheese; burritos; nachos; tacos; potato skins; fondue; lasagna and cheese fries (that’s French fries plus melted cheese). Certainly, if you start out with a beefy burger, you’re in trouble already, but today I want to focus on just how much trouble the cheese portion adds in return for the appealing tastes it brings.

Some time, decades ago, when I was studying for a graduate degree in nutrition, it surprised me when it came to my attention that cheese did not belong in the ‘healthy protein, eat-as-I-please’ category. That is where I had cheese, pigeon-holed in my mind. I discovered that most cheese is loaded with saturated fat and sodium. Over time, I decided that with my genetics, I should put the brakes on cheese consumption. Maybe we’re thinking of building our bones with the calcium in cheese, but the artery-clogging saturated fat and the load of sodium come with the package. Since that time, I’ve looked at cheese from a different perspective, which includes the idea of using it sparingly – trying not to clog my arteries and increase my girth.

Unfortunately I’m not alone in my old way of thinking; I think that many people have the idea that delicious cheese is a very healthy addition to the diet. There have been a couple of exceptional surprises as related to cheese, during the decades since I’ve ‘put the brakes’ on cheese. One was during my internship, I was assigned to conduct a food tasting panel for some products being considered for the hospital menu. One was deep fried cheese. I must admit that prior to that experience, I had never envisioned the concept of putting a crust (that could soak up even more saturated fat) on cheese and deep-frying it. What a travesty for a hospital! The second experience that stands out in my mind was when I moved to the mountain west, and learned that it was some sort of cultural experience for many people in the area to melt cheese on a cookie sheet and just eat it by the melted globs-full – just plain.

It’s not just my imagination that we are eating cheese in excess. Click here to see a very nice USDA data page on U.S. per capita food availability for Cheese. It’s a richly interactive data page, and is complex to use. If you that don’t like statistics (most of my friends don’t) here is a snapshot of one view of the data pertaining to cheese, with thanks and credit to the USDA.

USDA Data:  Cheese in Pounds per Person in the USA.

USDA Lbs of Cheese

Notice that after a slow 60-year start, how rapidly the availability of Italian type cheeses has increased since 1970, combined with the steeper rise in American type cheeses and miscellaneous types. The top blue-green total line has risen very steeply since 1970.  (The obesity epidemic was noticed beginning in the early 1990’s.)

The chart below the graph has the numbers for each year in a table for our reference. For me the astonishing and intriguing fact that just flabbergasts me, is that Americans had a total of 32.4 pounds of cheese per person in the United States, in the year 2008. One hundred years before that, each and every person in the United States had 2.46 pounds of cheese. If you don’t want to go all the way back to 1909, just look at the comparison from 1970, which is 11.4 pounds to the 32.4 pounds for 2008. This averages 21 pounds per person increase in the past 40 years! If we just use an average of 100 calories per ounce for each of those 21 additional pounds of cheese (and assume 3500 calories makes a pound), that would account for about 9.6 pounds of additional weight if everyone ate that 32.4 lbs.  Of course, the big cheese eaters get way more than the average, so imagine the extra pounds they have earned by giving in to their craving for cheese. And hope that you are now, or will become, one who is eating way less than average.

Let’s just say that we know someone who is one of those average per capita consumers of that modest amount of available cheese. In 1909, that average American was eating .76 ounces per week (about ¾ of an ounce). In 2008, an average American was eating 9.98 ounces/week (almost 10 ounces, in a week).

Are you wondering why I’m so stunned? It’s such a great example of a highly visible factor leading to America’s weight problems. Let’s just do a tiny bit of math.

Calories/Fat issue

There are many different varieties of cheese, so the fat and calories range from the lowest, which is fat free cheese (zero grams of fat) and only 50 calories an ounce – to the high fat, which is 9 grams of fat (6 grams of which are saturated fat) with 110 calories per ounce. Most of the tasty hard cheeses so heavily used in popular foods are at the high end.

Sodium issue

Cheese with the lowest amounts of sodium are those that are made specifically as reduced sodium cheese and some mozzarella cheese at about 120 mg per ounce. Some fat free feta or Velveeta Light cheese is as high as 450 mg per ounce. It is sad, but perhaps to cover up the loss of tasty cheese fat, lots of salt is frequently used in fat free cheese.

Craving issue

In part 2 of the Full Accounting story next week, (see Part 1 here) Dr. Grandpa is going to explain how the food designers have learned to increase the craving factor in foods.  Our previous blog on food hedonics tells some of this story. Cheese is one of the foods that Dr. Neal Bernard comes right out and claims is addictive.  Addictive means that it triggers a strong craving by appealing to the pleasure center of the brain; and sets up habit patterns that reinforce the craving. See his chapter four in Breaking the Food Seduction: The Hidden Reasons Behind Food Cravings---And 7 Steps to End Them Naturally on cheese as one of the four big food addictions. (The others are sugar, chocolate, and meat). Dr. Bernard looks at casein, a major component of cheese. It breaks apart in to stomach into a whole host of opiates. This research might explain the mechanism of the cheese seduction, but the results are plain as day when we just add up the extra saturated fat calories that the extra pounds of cheese, shown above, add to the average and big cheese eaters. I think the wide availability of cheese in many forms explains a lot of this unwise overconsumption, but there is evidence that a lot of people find the craving for much more cheese than they ought to have; well, irresistible.

It seems like so many of the foods that we’re getting pudgy on, are making someone rich. In 1998, Americans spent $8.8 billion on cheese (that does not include the cost of cheese used by restaurants, in pizzas, frozen lasagnas, and other commercially prepared foods.) Why do we care? We care because cheese is equal with beef as the number-one source of artery-clogging saturated fat in the U.S. diet. And if you want to lose weight as well as have heart health, it is going to be very high on the list of foods that you will need to master, especially if it currently masters you.

Consider what our cheese tastes do to us if we’re striving to limit ourselves to a 20-gram saturated fat limit/day. Suppose we only eat a single 1-inch cube of regular cheddar or Swiss; or one and a half slices of processed cheese; or ¼ cup of shredded cheese.  Each of these little cheese snitches equals 9 of our goal of 20 grams of saturated fat for the day.  Two of those 1-inch cubes at the wedding reception buffet line equal 18 grams of saturated fat. Lick up the crumbs and you have reached the goal of 20. But it is not just these cheese goodies that go against that saturated fat quota.  The crackers usually also have sat-fat, or those little bacon goodies, or sausage thingies. These tasty complements to the cheese should be skipped, if a couple chunks of cheese are chosen. It is tough, but it would be wise to have a small  ‘planning party’ to figure out in advance what to eat during the buffet – and for the balance of the day – to stay within the 20-gram limit.

Certainly the low-fat cheeses are a boon to helping your health, especially if you don’t mind the texture or taste. I don’t eat much cheese, so I’m really not a good resource for knowing the best low-fat cheeses that taste good. Maybe some of you wouldn’t mind writing in and sharing with the other readers and me, if you know some really good brands of low-fat cheese that taste good. As mentioned above, we have to be careful about the extra sodium added to the low fat cheeses.

Another way of managing cheese is to use a very flavorful cheese like Parmesan, Romano or feta, (not the low-fat versions). They’re just as fatty as other hard cheeses, but you can sprinkle a recipe with one or two tablespoons; it will make the recipe have the wonderful rich taste of cheese. You’ll notice, if you look back on many of the recipes in this blog, that when cheese is an ingredient, it is usually just a tablespoon or two of one of these flavorful Mediterranean cheeses. In the recipe in this blog post, cheese is a main ingredient of the recipe; but it’s not anywhere near challenging pizza or nachos in serving size. (See the note at the end of the recipe.)

Can we put pizza in perspective?  A four-ounce slice of pizza has about 14 grams of fat; six of them saturated fat. I like the strategy that the Center for Science in the Public Interest suggested in an article published in 2001. They suggest to order the pizza with half the usual amount of cheese; and to stay away from cheese-stuffed-crust pizzas. You might want to also consider reducing the number of times you allow a fast food or restaurant to be in control of adding cheese to your food. Maybe think about asking to have the cheese on the side. Or you might contemplate moving cheese from the ‘healthy protein, eat-as-I-please’ category in your mind, to the ‘eat sparingly’ category.

In summary, the statistical evidence is that cheese is a very popular food, one whose consumption has about tripled since 1970.  The amount consumed on average is way in excess of wise amounts of saturated fats and calories than we should take in. It comes laden with saturated fat, much sodium, and built-in hyper-palatability that lead to craving.  Some of us have not yet been able to master that craving.  Far too many of us are suffering the consequences of our overconsumption of that seductive and delicious food; cheese, in its multitude of forms. We need to adopt strategies like those suggested above.  I will try to offer other suggestions like this Tangy Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Broccoli and Fetarecipe.  Doctor Grandma