Cheese is high in fat and calories compared with many other foods, and it might not seem like an obvious choice for people with diabetes. However, a person who has diabetes can enjoy a wide variety of cheese without elevating their blood sugar or blood pressure or gaining weight.
By taking a balanced approach to eating cheese, individuals who love this familiar food item can enjoy it without damaging their health.
For diabetes-friendly meals or snacks, people should choose healthful cheeses and serve them with foods that are high in fiber and low in calories.
People with diabetes can safely eat cheese as part of a balanced, healthful diet.
As with other foods, moderation is key, and so a diet that includes too much cheese would be harmful to people with or without diabetes.
A person with diabetes can consider the following when selecting a cheese to include in a diabetes-friendly diet.
Cheese is very high in calories and fat. Though calorie content varies between varieties of cheese, people with diabetes should avoid overindulging.
Several steps can help people with diabetes eat cheese and minimize weight gain, including:
- Stick to small servings of cheese.
- Choose lower-calorie varieties.
- Use cheese for flavor rather than as the main ingredient of a meal.
Cheese is high in saturated fat when compared with many other foods. In small quantities, saturated fat is harmless and can be beneficial to the body. However, too much can cause 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, meaning that in a 2,000-calorie daily 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 calorie intake of saturated fat, which raises the amount of cheese a person can consume.
People with diabetes can meet these goals by sticking to a diet that contains 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.
With that said, being mindful of overall intake is still a sensible position to take, particularly from red meat, bacon, sausage, full-fat dairy products, and other high-fat foods.
As people with diabetes already face a higher risk of heart disease than others, they may want to continue reducing their saturated fat intake until research provides clearer guidelines.
The emphasis for people with diabetes should be to follow a largely plant-based diet that is rich in unsaturated fats.
Cheese is often high in salt, particularly processed cheeses. A 2018 study, for example, found a mean salt content of 863 mg per 100 g of processed cheese.
The study found that fresh cheese had a mean salt content of 498 mg per 100g. To minimize sodium content, people can choose fresh cheese over processed goods.
Will cheese affect blood sugar levels?
Cheese has a low glycemic index (GI), meaning that it releases glucose slowly and will not trigger significant blood glucose spikes. People often consume cheese alongside other foods, however, and some of these may spike blood glucose.
People often include sources of carbohydrates, such as crackers, fruit, or honey on a cheese plater. These will directly affect blood sugar, but pairing them with an appropriate portion of cheese can prolong feelings of fullness and satisfaction.
People with diabetes must also be mindful of the portion sizes of the foods they eat, along with the cheese itself, to manage their saturated fat and sugar intake.
People with diabetes should avoid processed cheeses, including single-slice packaged cheeses and cheese sprays. These cheeses are very high in salt and might also contain other, potentially risky ingredients for people with diabetes.
Other high-salt cheeses include:
- imported blue
Lower-sodium varieties of cheese include:
- low-sodium cottage cheese
- cream cheese
Most cheeses contain similar quantities of saturated fat, but some contain more. American and Monterey Jack have slightly more saturated fat than many others, while provolone and mozzarella are slightly lower.
As well as looking at the salt and saturated fat content, people with diabetes may want 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 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, with 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 probiotics.
Probiotics are healthful bacteria that have links to improving well-being and might reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, fight the yeast infections that people with diabetes are prone to, and improve gut health.
Low-salt varieties of cheese are the most healthful choice that people can make.
Some research suggests that people with diabetes may actually benefit from cheese.
A 2019 study, although done on rats, looked at the impact of low- and regular-fat cheeses and found that they improved insulin sensitivity according to one measurement. This improvement reduced the risk of diabetes without affecting insulin production or body weight.
It is worth noting that the Dairy Farmers of Canada funded this study. Learn more about the study’s limitations here.
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 for longer, reducing the temptation to binge on unhealthful foods or eat too many sugary carbohydrates.
Cheese is an excellent source of protein for people who have a vegetarian diet and have diabetes.
A single serving of cheese is often quite small, about 1 oz in weight or the size of two dice.
People may wish to check the package for serving size and stick to just one serving. To make a single serving feel more satisfying, people can try eating it alongside other, high-fiber foods.
Some options to accompany cheese include:
Cheese and sprouted-grain crackers or bread: Sprouted-grain foods are rich in fiber and nutrients. These can have a favorable impact on blood sugar in comparison to other carbohydrates.
Cheese as a salad dressing: Many salad dressings are high in salt and calories. Cheese offers flavor and additional protein. Adding low-fat cheese plus some lemon juice and avocado can be a great way to load flavor on a salad without a high-calorie dressing.
Low-sodium cottage cheese and avocado: Avocado is rich in fiber and healthful fats, so these two foods together can stave off cravings for less healthful foods. Adding black or cayenne pepper brings even more flavor.
Cheese is often high in fat and salt but eating it in moderation is safe for someone who has diabetes.
Some cheeses, especially those that are fresh, can even help reduce the risk of diabetes in people who do not already have the condition.
Mozzarella, Emmental, and Wensleydale cheese are among the lowest sodium options. People with diabetes should avoid more salty cheeses, such as feta and halloumi.
As with any dietary recommendation for people with diabetes, balance and moderation are essential for minimizing the risk of high blood sugar and its complications, including stroke and heart disease.
Is butter safe for people who have diabetes?
Eating butter in moderation is safe for those with diabetes. Choosing real butter instead of margarine will decrease trans fat intake and have a better overall impact on heart health and diabetes management. Since butter is a saturated fat, being mindful of total daily intake is important.
On a 2,000-calorie diet, The American Heart Association recommend only 13 g come from saturated fat, which equals 5–6 percent of total calories. One tablespoon of real butter contains 7 g of saturated fat.
Opting for unsalted butter can decrease sodium intake, which is important for improving blood pressure and heart health.
Overall, a person can include butter in a healthful diet for people with diabetes if they consume it mindfully and in moderation. Speak to a dietitian about specific intake of certain foods while managing blood sugar.Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.