Although cheese is high in fat, it can be enjoyed in moderation by people with diabetes.
Cheese lovers can enjoy a wide variety of cheeses without elevating blood sugar, raising blood pressure, or gaining weight.
For diabetes-friendly meals or snacks, people should choose healthful cheeses and serve them with foods that are rich in fiber and low in calories.
Can people with diabetes eat cheese?
People with diabetes can safely eat cheese as part of a balanced, healthful diet. Just as with other foods, moderation is the key. A diet mainly consisting of cheese is unhealthy for anyone.
When selecting cheeses, people with diabetes need to consider a few things:
Cheese is very high in calories and fat. Though calorie content varies among cheese varieties, people with diabetes should avoid overindulging in cheese.
There are several steps that people with diabetes can take to help them eat cheese without gaining weight:
- stick to small servings
- choose lower-calorie cheeses
- use cheese as a source of flavor rather than as the main course
Cheese is high in saturated fat compared with many other foods. In small quantities, saturated fat is harmless and can actually be beneficial to the body. But excessive intake of saturated fats is linked to weight gain, high cholesterol, gallbladder problems, and heart disease.
The American Heart Association recommend a diet that contains no more than 5-6 percent saturated fat. That means that in a 2,000 calorie diet, no more than 120 calories or 13 grams (g) should come from saturated fats.
Other experts advise no more than 10 percent of daily caloric intake, which increases the amount of saturated fat, and cheese, that a person can consume safely. People with diabetes can meet this goal by sticking to no more than one serving of cheese per day.
The connection between saturated fat intake and heart disease is not as clear as it once seemed. An analysis of previous research found insufficient evidence linking saturated fats and heart disease.
However, people with diabetes are already at a higher risk of heart disease. As a result, they should continue consuming only small quantities of saturated fats until research provides clearer guidelines.
Until this time, the emphasis for people with diabetes should be to eat lots of plant-based foods that are rich in unsaturated fats.
People with diabetes should keep their salt (sodium) intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day or less. Salt can elevate blood pressure, causing or worsening diabetes-related cardiovascular problems.
Cheese is often high in salt, and processed cheeses are the worst culprits. A 2011 study, for example, found an average salt content of 1,242 mg per 100 g in processed cheese. String cheese had an average salt content of 724 mg per 100 g.
Will cheese affect blood sugar levels?
Cheese has a low glycemic index (GI), which means that it releases glucose slowly and will not trigger significant blood glucose spikes. Of course, cheese is often consumed with other foods, some of which can spike blood glucose.
A cheese platter that offers cheese, fruit, honey, and crackers can elevate blood glucose. People with diabetes should be mindful of the foods they eat along with cheese and not just the cheese itself.
Some research suggests that people with diabetes may actually benefit from cheese.
A 2012 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked at the eating habits of 12,400 people with type 2 diabetes, and 16,800 people without diabetes. Researchers found that people who ate 55 g of cheese, about two slices per day, could lower their diabetes risk by 12 percent.
Cheese is also high in protein. A single slice or 1 oz of Cheddar cheese contains about 7 g of protein. Protein can help people feel fuller longer, reducing the temptation to binge on unhealthful foods, or eat too many sugary carbohydrates.
Cheese is also an excellent source of protein for vegetarian people who have diabetes.
Best and worst cheeses
Feta cheese contains relatively high levels of salt.
People with diabetes should avoid processed cheeses, including single-slice packaged cheeses, string cheese, and cheese sprays. These cheeses are very high in salt, and may also contain other unhealthful ingredients.
Other high-salt cheeses include:
- imported blue
Lower sodium alternatives include:
- low sodium cottage cheese
- cream cheese
Most cheeses contain similar quantities of saturated fat, but there are exceptions. American and Monterey Jack are slightly higher in saturated fat, while provolone and mozzarella are slightly lower.
As well as looking at the salt and saturated fat content, it is important to check out the overall nutritional value. Cheeses that are high in protein, calcium, or other minerals are particularly healthful.
People with diabetes may wish to consider the following:
- An ounce (oz) of provolone offers a full daily value of calcium.
- Neufchatel tastes similar to cream cheese, but with a third of the fat content.
- Parmesan is higher in protein than some other cheeses, boasting 8 g per serving, but with a slightly lower calorie content.
- Fermented cheeses such as some cottage cheeses, ricotta cheese, feta, Gouda, and Cheddar provide healthful bacteria, also known as probiotics.
Probiotics are linked to improved health. They may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fight the yeast infections that people with diabetes are prone to, and improve gut health. Low salt varieties are the most healthful choice.
It can be easy to binge on cheese, but a single serving is often quite small, about 1 oz in weight (the size of 2 dice). People should check the package for serving size, and stick to just one serving. To make a single serving feel larger, try eating it alongside other foods, especially those high in fiber.
Some options include:
- Cheese and sprouted grain crackers or bread: Sprouted grain foods are rich in fiber and nutrients, which can have a favorable impact on blood sugar compared to other carbohydrates.
- Cheese on a salad instead of dressing: Many salad dressings are high in salt and calories. Cheese offers flavor and additional protein. It is particularly healthful alongside high-fiber plants, such as spinach, kale, and avocado.
- Low-sodium cottage cheese and avocado: Avocado is rich in fiber and healthful fats, so the two foods together can stave off cravings for less healthful foods. Add black or cayenne pepper for even more flavor.