September 6, 2007

You Ask, I Answer: Cheese

I'd love to hear your thoughts on cheese. I'm pretty sure that having it for breakfast about 4 days a week and enjoy cheese plates about twice a week in addition to that might be overdoing it. What are your thoughts about cheeses to avoid in large quantities, and which to have occassionally?

--Antonella Montagna

Key Largo, FL

Cheese sure is delicious, but its high fat content also results provides a large number of calories in a small package. Remember, each gram of fat contains nine calories, while a gram of protein or carbohydrates contributes four calories.

Additionally, the kind of fat found in cheese is the saturated kind -- the type associated with raising our bad cholesterol, risk of heart disease, and contributing to atherosclerosis.

This is not to say you should cut cheese out of your diet. However, being aware of your portions is very important here.

If you are at a party, for instance, you should know that four cheese cubes count as one serving (containing anywhere from 85 to 130 calories, depending on the specific type you are eating).

As a rule of thumb, soft, creamy cheeses contain less fat (and, thus, less calories) than harder types. The reason? Simple -- soft cheeses contain more water, wherehas the hard varieties have their fat more concentrated.

So, if your three favorite cheeses are Swiss, cheddar, and manchego, I would suggest introducing some softer ones to your breakfast and cheese plates.

I should point out, though, that even soft cheeses have considerable amounts of saturated fat.

For instance, while an ounce of cheddar (just four little cubes!) provides 30 percent of our daily recommended saturated fat limit, an ounce of whole milk mozzarella still contributes 20 percent.

Here are my suggestions to you.

On the days you start off your morning with cheese, be mindful of your portions, especially if you are consuming hard cheeses. You can be a little more lenient if you are having a caprese salad containing part-skim mozzarella, though, which contains half the saturated fat found in its whole milk counterpart.

Similarly, on days when you have cheese for breakfast, make food choices for lunch, snacks, and dinner that are low in saturated fat (i.e.: have shrimp instead of steak, pour skim milk into your latte in place of whole milk, and replace butter with vegetable oils in your cooking).

As you may have noticed, I make no mention of fat-free cheese. The reason? That entire concept is blasphemy! Cheese is naturally meant to have fat in it. Whereas I find that skim milk adds flavor to coffee or cereal, fat-free cheese is yellow cardboard.

That being said, Cabot makes a tasty reduced-fat cheddar cheese that I often enjoy.