The best evidence for the benign impact of cheese comes from long-term cohort studies that tracked the health and eating habits of tens or hundreds of thousands of people. A 2011 paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine analyzed three cohorts that together tracked 120,877 US adults over several decades. The authors found that foods like potatoes, processed meats, and refined grains were associated with weight gain over time, while yogurt, fruit, and nuts were associated with weight loss. Cheese was right in the middle: On average, eating more or less of it had essentially no effect on weight.That finding has held up in more recent research. A 2018 analysis of a study of 2,512 men in Ireland, for example, showed a mild inverse relationship between cheese consumption and body mass after five years, meaning eating cheese was associated with weight loss, though that effect faded at the 10-year mark. A meta-analysis of 37 randomized clinical trials found that increased dairy consumption overall led to increased lean muscle mass and decreased body fat.
“There’s almost no evidence that cheese causes weight gain—and in fact, there’s evidence that it’s neutral at worst,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, the lead author of the 2011 paper and dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. “There’s no evidence that cheese is linked to cardiovascular disease, and in some studies, it’s even a little bit associated with lower risk. And then, for diabetes, again, it’s at worst neutral, and maybe protective.”
I recently had a chance to check in with two of the authors, Steve Wood and Jon Fisher, environmental scientists with The Nature Conservancy and The Pew Charitable Trusts, respectively, for a wide-ranging discussion on the challenges of turning science into practice and why their paper is more timely than ever – especially as scientists struggle to help inform meaningful change in a world facing increasingly urgent challenges.
It’s true that observational studies can only reveal correlations. But if there are confounding variables when it comes to Americans’ cheese consumption, they should make its effects look worse, not better. The way Americans eat cheese, and especially the way they were eating it in the 1980s and ’90s, when much of the data was gathered, tends to pair it with unhealthy foods: Imagine a pepperoni pizza, or a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with a side of chips. “It wasn’t people eating cheese on cutting boards with walnuts and grapes,” Mozaffarian says. “If there were confounding [factors], it would be toward weight gain.”
So just to recap so far: The evidence tends to show that cheese does not make you gain weight. Why hasn’t this amazing news spread more widely? After all, we’ve seen many conventional ideas about food, weight gain, and health be reconsidered over the past decade or two. Thanks in part to the work of authors like Michael Pollan and Gary Taubes, the low-fat diet mantra of the late 20th century has been discredited, replaced by an awareness that added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and processed foods are the likelier culprits in America’s obesity epidemic.