Go ahead, finish off that wheel of Brie, that brick of cheddar, or that blob of mozzarella. Your heart may thank you. Last month, a group of Danish scientists investigated why the French don’t seem to suffer from cardiovascular disease as much as their high saturated fat, high cholesterol diets would suggest. The researchers looked to diet to explain this so-called French Paradox, and what do the French eat a lot of? Cheese. In 2013, the French led the pack in cheese consumption worldwide—closely followed by Iceland and Finland.
So the team had 15 young-to-middle aged men follow three different diets for two weeks at a time. Each diet had the same amount of calories: one was high in 1.5% milk fat, another was high in cheese, and a third allowed butter but no other dairy.
The scientists then took a close look at the men’s urine and feces to see what came out after the dairy went in. Men on the milk and cheese diets excreted higher levels of molecules called short-chain fatty acids which are thought to be anti-inflammatory and lower levels of a molecule called TMAO, made by gut microbes when they break down animal-based foods and linked to cardiovascular disease. The authors speculated that the cheese and milk might be altering gut bacteria to somehow make more of the beneficial short chain fatty acids and less of the potentially damaging TMAO.
“The most interesting thing to me is the short chain fatty acid and immunology angle,” says Kevin Bonham, a post-doctoral scholar who studies the microbial communities in cheese and writes for the Scientific American blog, The study size is pretty small, but at the same time it it’s certainly suggestive of an interesting link.”
This study, despite being funded by a dairy company, aligns with other work in the field that draws correlations between cheese and dairy consumption and protective effects in cardiovascular and metabolic disease, says Gökhan Hotamisligil, chair of genetics and complex diseases at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Not everyone is sold on cheese’s benefits, though. Kim Williams, a cardiologist at Rush University Medical Center, president of the American College of Cardiology, and a vegan, is less certain that diet explains the French Paradox. “I spent a lot of time in Paris and other parts of France, and what you don’t see is inactive people who are overweight,” he says, adding that further studies need to be done to first tease out the lifestyle factors that are contributing to it and second to compare the risk for cardiovascular disease of animal-based diets versus plant-based diets. “It shouldn’t just be more cheese versus less cheese or cheese versus butter, it actually should be a plant-based diet versus the animal products,” he says.
“Whether or not cheese will solve French paradox, I think, remains to be seen,” Hotamisligil says. Nevertheless, “As a big cheese lover, I am loving to read these sort of findings,” he jokes. “Wine is good, cheese is good, so I’m all set.”