Making the rounds of holiday parties, perhaps you smugly turn up your nose at the pigs-in-a-blanket, Swedish meatballs, steak tips--in short, any hors d'oeuvres with red meat. But as you stand with your white wine delicately munching on Camembert and crackers, are you aware that most types of cheese contain as much fat as a well-marbled cut of beef--and sometimes much more? Moreover, do you know that more than half the fat in cheese is saturated--the kind that leads to clogged arteries?
If these nutrition tidbits have caught you by surprise, you're not alone. While beef consumption has declined in recent decades, cheese consumption has been rising steadily. In 1910, Americans ate an estimated five pounds of cheese per person each year. By 1986, that number had soared to 23 pounds. And in 1998, it reached 28 pounds--no doubt helped along by the increasing popularity of "specialty" cheeses such as feta, Gorgonzola, Edam and asiago.
Granted, you can buy nonfat and reduced-fat varieties. But chances are you don't. In the 52 weeks ending Oct. 2, retail sales of nonfat cheese plummeted by 14 percent, according to Alan Levitt, a spokesperson for the Jerry Dryer Group, a Chicago-based food forecasting firm. Sales of full-fat varieties, on the other hand, increased by 10 percent. Reduced-fat cheese sales rose, too, but lagged far behind the full-fat kind, with an increase of just 6 percent.
Not that full-fat cheese is bad for you. On the contrary, an ounce of several popular varieties contains in the neighborhood of 200 milligrams of calcium--20 percent of the Daily Value. It also contains high-quality protein, vitamin A, and the B vitamin riboflavin, along with other nutrients. But it might be wise to think of cheese the same way nutritionally savvy people think of meat--as a healthful food packed with vitamins and minerals but whose portion sizes should remain on the small side.
That's not just because of all the fat. Cheese can be pretty high in sodium, too. An ounce of American cheese, the most popular kind at the supermarket, contains between 15 and 20 percent of the 2,400-milligram daily limit recommended by the National Academy of Sciences.
Fortunately, it's a lot easier to use cheese more sparingly than beef. Crumbled into a salad, shredded over pasta or used as a sandwich spread, a single ounce of flavorful cheese can go much further to enliven a meal than an ounce of beef. It can also make less appealing foods more appetizing. Try melting an ounce of mild cheese like Gouda over a pungent vegetable such as Brussels sprouts, for instance. You'll not only get more of the greens you should be having, you'll also get 155 milligrams of calcium--15 percent of the Daily Value--for just an extra 101 calories.
The Cheese Board
As a general rule, the harder the cheese, the more calcium -- and fat and calories -- it contains. You can "stretch" it by using a cheese slicer instead of a knife to get ultra-thin cheese for sandwiches; shredding rather than slicing it when possible to make it cover more surface area; and using small amounts of piquant varieties like feta and goat cheese to get more flavor into a dish. Reduced-fat versions also tend to cut fat and calories considerably, but generally have more sodium than their full-fat counterparts. (The flavor's got to come from somewhere.)
Two cheeses whose reduced-fat versions do not offer great fat and calorie savings are mozzarella and ricotta. An ounce of whole-milk mozzarella has six grams of fat and 80 calories; an ounce of part-skim has five fat grams and 72 calories. Likewise, a half-cup of whole-milk ricotta has about 220 calories and 14 grams of fat, while a half-cup of the part-skim version comes in almost as high, at 200 calories and 12 fat grams. Listed below is the nutritional content of some popular types of cheese (per ounce unless otherwise noted).
Type of Cheese
Saturated Fat (grams)
Cottage, 1% fat
Cream (2 Tbsp.)
Cream, light (2 Tbsp.)
Ricotta, whole milk
Ricotta, part skim
Someone following a 2,000-calorie diet should average a maximum of 22 grams of saturated fat a day, and a daily total of 66 grams of fat. The National Academy of Sciences recommends a daily sodium limit of 2,400 milligrams. The Daily Value for calcium is 1,000 milligrams. (The Adequate Intake for people 51 and older is 1,200 milligrams.)