Cheese Actually Isn’t Bad for You

Cheese is among the ultimate guilty pleasures. It’s gooey. It’s fatty. It’s delicious. It just has to be bad for you, right?Wrong. A large body of research suggests that cheese’s reputation as a fattening, heart-imperiling food is undeserved. When it comes to weight and other key health outcomes (and setting aside the issue of lactose intolerance, with apologies), cheese is neutral at worst, and possibly even good for you. And yet that research doesn’t seem to have broken through into common knowledge. If you Google “cheese,” the top result under “people also ask” is the ungrammatical query “Why cheese is bad for you?” Now, if you’re the type of person who’s thinking, “What’s the big deal? I eat what I like, in moderation, and don’t worry about calories”—congratulations, I’m happy for you, we have lots of great articles about science and tech you might enjoy. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and worry that your diet is making you gradually fatter, keep reading.
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.”
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.