(An amazing grilled cheese sandwich. Oh. My. Lord. Photo by Flickr user: Maggie Hoffman)
I’ve encountered a number of people – including vegetarians – who have told me meat is not difficult to give up, but the one thing they couldn’t do without is cheese. As a former cheese fanatic, I know exactly what they mean. Few things used to comfort me like a nice grilled quesadilla with tons of cheddar or a hot slice of pizza overflowing with mozzarella. However, cheese lost a lot of its appeal when I took one look at a nutrition label on a fateful Saturday morning. I was at a Starbucks, about to board a train for a long ride and I really wanted a snack. I grabbed one of Starbucks’ deceivingly healthy-looking snack boxes filled with crackers, almonds, sliced fruit, and cheese. I walked off happily, proud of myself for grabbing the healthiest snack, and went on about my day. I was devouring a tiny wedge of Brie with a slice of apple when I decided to take a peek at the nutrition facts. This is what I saw: “Calories 480, Calories from Fat 250; Total Fat 28g, 44% DV; Saturated Fat 10g, 50% DV; Cholesterol 50 mg, 17% DV.” I couldn’t even believe it! This tiny box with small slices of cheese, fruit, and almonds had half the fat that a grown adult needs in one day. Of course, the nuts in there have some fat too, but that cholesterol and most of the saturated fat was coming solely from the cheese. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature: they clog your arteries, raising the level of cholesterol in your blood. You’ll find them mostly in foods from animal sources, but they are also found in coconut oil and palm oil. Because they are considered “bad fats,” the American Heart Association recommends that saturated fats make up less than 7% of your daily calorie intake. Whole-fat and creamy cheeses are a major source of saturated fats. That day, I ended up eating the crackers and the fruit, but tossing the cheese.
Looks innocent enough, right? Think again. (Photo by: Starbucks)
In fact, I began tossing (and giving away) most of the cheese I consumed regularly. I started reading labels and learning a bit more about how many calories and how much fat the cheeses I love have. After careful consideration, I said goodbye to my spicy friend, Pepper Jack, for good and tried to get rid of my quesadilla habit. Over time, I cut back on cheese dramatically and I truly feel like that has been one of the keys to my weight loss. Obviously, that’s because a lot of the fat that I consumed came from cheese and that may not be the same for you. But if you are a cheese lover looking to get healthy, remember that forgoing two slices of cheddar on your sandwich can mean saving a total of 226 calories and over 11 grams of saturated fat, 60% of the daily recommended value of saturated fat for an adult consuming 2,000 calories per day.
But I’m not here to advocate that you get rid of cheese completely! There are a lot of voices online that want you to cut out dairy completely, and if you feel that’s right for you, then more power to you. But if like a lot of us, you have no adverse reaction to lactose, buy organic dairy, or don’t think you could give it up the creamy goodness, here are five tips to make sure the cheese you buy helps you reach your health goals.
Remember, getting healthy and losing weight is not about adopting radical changes that you will not be able to maintain long-term. Getting healthy is about making small changes and changing bad habits for good habits.
1. Choose Tofu
Okay, I know it’s not the same. I know it’s not the same at all, but tofu can certainly hit the spot. Add marinated firm tofu to sandwiches and silken tofu to pasta sauces to achieve that creamy consistency melted cheese provides. Besides, tofu is high in protein and low in fat. (Photo of tofu ceviche by Flickr User: Lablascovegmenu)
2. Choose Goat Cheese over Cow’s Milk Cheese
Goat cheese has less calories and fat than cow’s milk cheese. An ounce of goat cheese usually has around seventy to eighty calories and six grams of fat, while a similar amount of cow’s milk cheese packs around 100 calories and ten grams of fat. Sprinkle pieces of Feta (made with sheep’s milk too) and French goat cheeses on salads instead of shredded cheddar. (Photo by Flickr User: cheese slave)
3.Use Nutritional Yeast
Deactivated yeast imparts a great cheesy, nutty flavor to food. You can add it to macaroni and cheese and to mashed potatoes. Sprinkle over tofu for a brunch favorite: vegan scramble. (Photo by Flickr user: Watashiwani)
4. Use Vegan Cheeses
I don’t have to tell you just how many vegan cheese substitutes there are out there. Daiya makes very popular melty ones. Just make sure to read the labels. Like a lot of commercial vegan products, the manufacturers often replace animal flavorings with tons of vegetable oils.
5. Ask for half the cheese, double the veggies
I remember asking for extra cheese when I ate out at restaurants and wanted to get a sandwich that had meat in it, without it. I figured, “Well, if I’m not getting the meat, then I might as well get double the cheese to get more food for my buck!” Not the best idea. I didn’t necessarily feel fuller and I was getting protein, sure, but a lot of fat, too. Now when I go to restaurants and want to get something that’s got meat, I ask for extra veggies instead. This is how I try to make pizza at home, too: cut the cheese in half and make up for it with a ton of fresh vegetables.
The truth is that if you love cheese, it’s hard to give it up. If you’re trying to lose weight or get healthy, avoiding it at times can help you reach your goal. However, make sure you are making changes that you can maintain. If you’re craving the Swiss, have a slice! But don’t let it undo your diet. The key is moderation and knowing that if you had too much of one thing, it’s better to exercise and cut back on the next meal.
As for me, avoiding cheese on most days has worked out best. I love it and the more I have it, the more I end up craving it. I allow myself an ounce of goat cheese every once in a while, but as a whole, I don’t have it as part of my weekly diet. I never thought I’d say this as someone who salivated for a long time looking at the picture of the grilled cheese at the top of this post, but there is a life after cheese.