Amid wildfires, Brexit, and our changing climate, it seems we’re rarely greeted with good news these days. On top of that, everything that tastes nice seems to be bad for you. But hold your cynicism for just one moment because we have some grate news: cheese, mmm cheese, might actually protect you from some of the perils associated with eating too much salt.
While we all need to consume a bit of salt to keep our bodies ticking over, too much can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, and even dementia. In a world filled with fast food and processed meals, avoiding salt can be tricky, but new research suggests that eating dairy might help to counteract its effects.
"Studies have shown that people who consume the recommended number of dairy servings each day typically have lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health in general," said Lacy Alexander, professor of kinesiology at Penn State and co-author of a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition. "We wanted to look at those connections more closely as well as explore some of the precise mechanisms by which cheese, a dairy product, may affect heart health."
The researchers recruited 11 people with salt-sensitive blood pressure and asked them to follow four different diets for eight days at a time. These were low-salt and no dairy, low-salt and high-cheese, high-salt and no dairy, and finally high-salt with ample cheese. The low-salt diets included 1,500 milligrams (0.05 ounces) of salt per day while the high-salt diets incorporated 5,500mg (0.2 ounces). The American Heart Association currently recommends eating no more than 2,300mg (0.08 ounces) per day but advises sticking to below 1,500mg. When following the diets that included cheese, the participants ate the equivalent of four servings (170 grams/6 ounces) and consumed a variety of cheese types.
After the study had concluded, the researchers assessed the blood vessel function of their volunteers. To do this, they injected a small amount of acetylcholine, which makes blood vessels relax, under their skin. They found that after following the high-salt, no dairy diet, the participants’ blood vessels struggled to relax, suggesting that their salt intake was impairing the function of their blood vessels. However, after the volunteers had consumed the high-salt, high-cheese diet, this change was not seen, suggesting the cheese had some sort of protective effect, despite the fact that cheese can be high in salt itself.
It’s currently unclear exactly what might be causing this protective effect, but the researchers think it might be to do with the antioxidants found in cheese.
"There is scientific evidence that dairy-based nutrients, specifically peptides generated during the digestion of dairy proteins, have beneficial antioxidant properties, meaning that they have the ability to scavenge these oxidant molecules and thereby protect against their damaging physiological effects," said study leader Billie Alba.
However, before you start feasting on salty foods with a side of cheese thinking you’re being healthy, there are a few caveats to take note of. First, the study only involved 11 people, which isn’t many at all, so the findings need to be replicated on a much larger scale. Second, no matter how much dairy you eat, it’s best to keep your salt intake nice and low at the recommended 1,500mg per day. And, while cheese is both delicious and a great source of calcium, it can be high in saturated fat and salt.
Essentially, we need more research to confidently draw concrete conclusions. For now, it’s a good idea to minimize your salt intake, but eating cheese in moderation certainly won’t hurt, and could even help to keep your blood vessels in good health. (FYI, cheese that's been listening to hip hop tastes best.)