We love cheese. Cheese consumption has nearly doubled in the average American household over the past four decades, according to data from the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
But if you have high cholesterol, is cheese still on the table, so to speak?
We get it. It’s a valid concern, given that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that over 25 million adults in the United States have high cholesterol (defined as having total cholesterol numbers above 240 mg/dL). That’s why we talked to nutrition experts and looked at the latest science to arm you with the facts—not fears—when it comes to including cheese as part of your diet if you have high cholesterol.
What’s the Link Between Cheese and Cholesterol?
Let’s start with the basics. The American Heart Association describes cholesterol as a fat-like substance. Your body makes some cholesterol, while other cholesterol comes from food. Having too-high levels of cholesterol in your body increases your risk for atherosclerosis, a buildup of plaque in your arteries that makes these vessels harder and stiffer, increasing your risk for conditions like coronary heart disease, says the AHA. Cholesterol is one substance that makes up this plaque.
Okay, now on to cheese specifically. Cheese is traditionally made from cow’s milk and contains a diverse profile of nutrients, including calcium and protein, as well as others like sodium, cholesterol and saturated fat.
Did your ears just perk up? Yes, cheese does contain some cholesterol, according to the USDA, though research in the journal Nutrients in 2018 indicates that the cholesterol we eat does not affect blood cholesterol levels as much as was once assumed. Rather, it’s factors including genetics, lifestyle factors and intake of other nutrients, such as saturated fat, that have a greater effect on raising blood cholesterol levels.
Depending on the type of cheese you buy, it can contribute a significant amount of saturated fat to your diet. This is the artery-clogging type of fat that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommends limiting due to how it can affect your heart if you eat a diet high in saturated fat long-term.
A single 1-ounce slice of Cheddar cheese contains 6 grams of saturated fat, according to the USDA. That’s just about half of the recommended daily limit of saturated fat, according to registered dietitian nutritionist and board-certified sports dietitian Roxana Ehsani, M.S., RD. (The recommended limit of saturated fat is usually 11 to 13 grams per day, based on a 2,000-calorie diet.)
That said, we’re still uncovering how saturated fat from cheese specifically may affect your heart. Though most people should think about decreasing the amount of saturated fat in their diet, recent research has shown that not all saturated fatty acids in foods are equal, and some may not actually promote cardiovascular disease, says registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer Jenna Braddock, RDN, creator of Eating for Purpose.
A 2023 review in Current Developments in Nutrition explores the fatty acid makeup of dairy foods and how they may uniquely affect people depending on their individual health risks. These researchers are investigating if eating fermented full-fat dairy may actually be better than low- or fat-free alternatives when it comes to your cardiometabolic health. While it’s too soon to say cheese, or other foods, offer positive benefits for our heart health or that you really should go for full-fat varieties, we can’t write them off so easily.
Can You Eat Cheese If You Have High Cholesterol?
There’s good news for cheese lovers. Both Ehsani and Braddock agree that cheese can be included as part of a healthy, balanced diet, even for those who have high cholesterol. There is evidence to say that even more than one serving a day of cheese does not increase blood cholesterol levels, Braddock says.
Ehsani recommends patients who have high cholesterol opt for cheeses that are reduced-fat, like reduced-fat Swiss or Cheddar, which are lower in saturated fat than their full-fat counterparts.
Braddock also suggests going for higher-calcium cheeses as well. Nearly 40% of people over age 4 don’t get enough calcium, and groups at the highest risk for inadequacy include postmenopausal women and Black and Asian individuals, according to the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. Since cheese is a source of calcium, opting for cheeses that contain more calcium, like part-skim mozzarella (1 ounce provides about 15% of the Daily Value), is a great choice.
With that said, we know nutrition is individualized, and what works for one person (or a group of participants in a study) may not work for you. Both Ehsani and Braddock recommend working with a registered dietitian nutritionist to evaluate your cholesterol levels and develop a meal plan that works best for you.
Tips to Include Cheese in a Healthy-Cholesterol Meal Plan
Looking to satisfy your cheese craving while still following a healthy-cholesterol meal plan? Then consider these tips:
- Grate some reduced-fat Cheddar into fajita chicken and sautéed bell peppers and onions. Why? Small bits of cheese infuse cheesy flavor throughout. Top with fresh avocado and salsa.
- Sprinkle Parmesan into egg batter as you prepare a frittata or quiche.
- Pair a snack tray with reduced-fat Swiss wrapped around sliced apples and a smear of almond butter.
- Make a savory snack kebab with part-skim mozzarella, tomatoes and cucumber slices.
- Top a serving of part-skim ricotta with fresh berries, walnuts and a sprinkle of cinnamon.
- Try our Cheesy Portobello Chicken Cutlets with Broccoli for dinner tonight.
- Pair cheese with heart-healthy foods, like fiber-rich fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains, like in our Sheet-Pan Balsamic-Parmesan Roasted Chickpeas & Vegetables
Frequently Asked Questions
Does eating cheese increase your cholesterol?
It can—but not due to the cholesterol in cheese. Research, like that previously referenced study from Nutrients, suggests that the cholesterol consumed from foods does not affect blood cholesterol as much as was once believed. The saturated fat found in cheese, however, can affect your blood cholesterol and contribute to increased heart risks over time. That said, moderate consumption of cheese can be included as part of a heart-healthy diet.
What are the best cheeses to buy if you have high cholesterol?
Choose cheeses that are lower in saturated fat and sodium. (Though sodium does not affect your cholesterol levels, excess sodium can lead to high blood pressure, which is also a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.) Examples include reduced-fat Swiss, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. In addition, adding cheeses that pack a lot of flavor, such as Swiss, Cheddar or pepper Jack, allows you to use a small amount for a big taste.
What is the serving size someone with high cholesterol should stick to when eating cheese?
Generally, a slice of cheese is about 1 ounce. The AHA recommends consuming two or three low-fat dairy sources a day as part of a heart-healthy diet, and this can include low-fat cheese with no more than 2 grams of saturated fat per serving. With this said, Ehsani and Braddock recommend taking your personal health history and nutrient needs into consideration before going with a blanket recommendation. Work with a registered dietitian nutritionist to plan how you can incorporate your favorite foods and meet your nutrient needs.
The Bottom Line
You don’t have to avoid cheese if you have high cholesterol. Though cheese does contain cholesterol, it’s the saturated fat that will have more of an impact on your blood cholesterol levels. Go ahead and eat cheese in moderation and with other nutrient-rich foods as part of a balanced diet.
Read Next: 10 Foods That Help Lower Cholesterol