Scientists at University College Dublin in Ireland found no link between eating cheese and increased body fat or higher LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, sometimes known as "bad" cholesterol.
Excess LDL cholesterol can cause cholesterol deposits to form on artery walls, leading to atherosclerosis (hardening and shrinking of the arteries), the main risk factor for strokes and heart attacks. Some 10,000 people in Ireland die from these diseases each year.
The researchers studied the impact of eating dairy products (on average 291g per day), such as milk, cheese, yogurt, cream and butter, on markers for body fatness and health in 1,500 Irish people aged between 18 and 90 years old. The study revealed some positive effects of dairy intake.
In fact, higher dairy intake was associated with lower body mass index (BMI), lower percentage of body fat, lower waist size and lower blood pressure.
Participants who ate a lot of cheese were not found to have higher LDL cholesterol levels than those who ate small amounts or no cheese at all.
When studying participants' diets, the researchers found that people who regularly consumed low-fat milk and yogurt tended to have higher intakes of carbohydrates. More surprisingly, they were also found to have higher LDL cholesterol levels.
The study suggests that dairy products, particularly milk and yogurt, can be consumed as part of a healthy diet to help maintain weight and contribute to keeping blood pressure and blood glucose levels in check.
The saturated fats contained in dairy products, especially in cheese, and the nutrients they contain should be considered in the wider context of a person's diet, the scientists conclude. "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," said lead author Dr Emma Feeney.
Generally, a dietary intake of antioxidants like vitamin E, vitamin C and beta-carotene, found in fruit and vegetables, and omega-3 fatty acids can help limit the buildup of bad cholesterol on artery walls. However, all meat -- even lean meats (offal, chicken, etc.) -- are sources of cholesterol, particularly offal.
According to a recent Canadian study, barley and oats could reduce the risk of heart disease linked to bad cholesterol by 7%. These two grains are particularly rich in beta-glucan, a highly viscous soluble fiber found in bran, flour, ground grains or flakes.