Medical authorities are sticking to their guns when it comes to advice on high fat dairy foods like cheese. They suggest replacing cheese, milk and yogurt with low or non-fat versions to protect against heart disease.
However, evidence shows that high fat cheese does not raise the risk of heart disease, but actually lowers it. In addition, memory health researchers have more good news: Cheese also reduces the risk of cognitive decline.
To understand why the conventional advice about dairy products is so off-base, it helps to consider the French Paradox. This phenomenon got its name from the fact that the people of France enjoy a diet high in saturated fats and dietary cholesterol – particularly from cheese – yet have low levels of heart disease.
The explanation usually put forward is that they’re protected by the antioxidant resveratrol in the liberal amounts of red wine they enjoy. But could another explanation be that cheese itself is protective?
Some researchers say yes.
Packed with Beneficial Bacteria
Cheese may be high in fat, but it’s also a fermented food. And fermented foods contain a variety of beneficial bacteria that are good for a healthy gut. Our intestinal microbiome is shown to play a role in the health of blood vessels, and an absence of good gut bacteria is scientifically linked to a build-up of plaque in the arteries.
In addition, the kind of molded, fermented cheeses the French like to eat, such as Roquefort and Camembert, have also been shown to contain factors that have beneficial effects on blood fats, blood pressure and inflammation.
These findings are backed up by a trial of 54,000 middle-aged Danish men and women over 16 years. The study found that intake of either whole-fat yogurt or cheese in place of milk – regardless of the fat content of the milk – was linked to a lower risk of a heart attack.
An even bigger trial of over 400,000 Europeans over 12 years found an increased consumption of cheese was linked to a lowered risk of heart disease. The most recent systematic review published in January found cheese lowered the risk of coronary heart disease by four percent.
What’s Good for the Heart is Good for the Brain
It’s become something of a cliché that what’s good for your heart is good for the brain, but that’s just what several studies have already reported.
Starting in the lab, certain peptides in fermented dairy products helped prevent age-related cognitive decline in mice. A second study found that Camembert cheese prevented Alzheimer’s pathology.
In human research, Japanese women over age 70 who ate mold-fermented cheese saw a boost in BDNF, a key protein involved in the growth and survival of brain cells.
But perhaps the latest study is the most interesting research to date.
Preserving Fluid Intelligence
Published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in February, researchers from Iowa State University wanted to find out what specific foods affect a particular aspect of cognition called fluid intelligence.
This is the ability to “think on the fly” or solve problems without any specific preparation or without thinking too much about how it should be done. This measure was chosen because it progressively declines from mid-life onwards, and a greater than normal decline is known to increase the risk of Alzheimer’s.
The researchers analyzed data on 1,787 older British adults who answered questions to test their fluid intelligence. They repeated the tests over the next six years, and then again three years after that.
At the same time intervals, study participants answered questions on their intake of 49 whole foods and liquids. These included fruits, vegetables, grains, fish, meat and dairy. Results showed weekly consumption of lamb, but no other red meat, improved long-term cognitive prowess.
Daily alcohol consumption, especially red wine, also improved cognition. But the stand-out food that was the most protective and provided the best support to fluid intelligence by far was daily consumption of – yes, you guessed it – cheese.
Upgrade Your Diet to Prevent Alzheimer’s
Lead author and food scientist Auriel Willette commented, “I was pleasantly surprised that our results suggest that responsibly eating cheese and drinking red wine daily are not just good for helping us cope with our current COVID-19 pandemic, but perhaps also dealing with an increasingly complex world that never seems to slow down.”
Fellow author Brandon Klinedinst, a neuroscience PhD candidate, added, “I believe the right food choices can prevent [Alzheimer’s] and cognitive decline altogether. Perhaps the silver bullet we’re looking for is upgrading how we eat. Knowing what that entails contributes to a better understanding of Alzheimer’s and putting this disease in a reverse trajectory.”
I couldn’t agree more. Your diet is critical if you want to avoid Alzheimer’s disease—or help reverse it. Although this study didn’t distinguish between types of cheeses, it’s clear from the French Paradox and other studies that mold-fermented cheeses are superior to highly processed types like American cheese. The mold-fermented cheeses will provide the greatest brain benefits—and help your heart to boot.
Cheeses made from pasteurized milk are likely to contain fewer live cultures than those made from raw milk. Unfortunately, non-pasteurized cheeses can be hard to find. Look for “organic,” “probiotic,” or “made from raw milk” on the label.
The next time you’re at the grocery store, pick up one of these microbe-rich cheeses and maybe even a bottle of red wine. Or consider adding yogurt to your breakfast every day. Your brain will thank you.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22981595/ Could cheese be the missing piece in the French paradox puzzle?
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31919508/ Substitution of Milk with Whole-Fat Yogurt Products or Cheese Is Associated with a Lower Risk of Myocardial Infarction: The Danish Diet, Cancer and Health cohort
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31006335/ Consumption of Meat, Fish, Dairy Products, and Eggs and Risk of Ischemic Heart Disease
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33446728/ Intake of dairy products and associations with major atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30595374/ Consumption of dairy product and its association with total and cause specific mortality – A population-based cohort study and meta-analysis
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31562049/ The Effects of Mold-Fermented Cheese on Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor in Community-Dwelling Older Japanese Women With Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Randomized, Controlled, Crossover Trial
- https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/12/201210145850.htm Diet modifications — including more wine and cheese — may help reduce cognitive decline, study suggests