A heart to heart with the Christmas cheese board

As we head towards Christmas, I feel like a speeding train, incapable of stopping shopping, baking and wrapping unless I simply run out of fuel. Meanwhile, my fridge seems to have been taken over by mice. Every time I open it, I am met with a shelf packed entirely of every variety of cheese, sandwiched together carefully like a stinky puzzle. Each pack balances precariously against the rest, threatening to topple Jenga-like if I dare remove it.

But for now it is safe, as I know that it will be impossible to help myself to a little Wensleydale and cranberry without sending out a silent cheese alert, compelling my children to swiftly come to the kitchen. Once there, before I have even finished the last creamy crumb, they will begin to take out every morsel of cheese from the fridge, not to mention the collection of chutneys that lurk in its dark recesses. Then they will scavenge through the cupboards and take out all the boxes of crackers that they can find, regardless of whether they actually like them or not. And in an instant, my intended tiny snack will have kickstarted a cheese party. Unlike a quick bite, the cheese fest will be a crumbly, sticky mess of loveliness that never seems to end.

Now that would be fine if there wasn’t so much to do before Christmas because like many people, I like a good cheese board. However, breaking for cheese means you might as well give up on getting anything useful done for the rest of the day. If not for the time lost whilst indulging in the infinite combination of different flavours, then for the cheese-induced foggy state that will inevitably follow.

Which is why it made me smile, the other day, when a cheese-related headline caught my eye. A study was reported in the national press as showing that eating a small portion of cheese every day could reduce your chance of developing heart disease or stroke. The study was actually a review of 15 previous observational studies and it was reported that cheese eaters had a 10% reduction of risk of cardiovascular disease such as heart disease, heart attacks and strokes. The largest reduction of risk was seen in people who ate 40g of cheese per day.

40g of cheese a day? This ‘small’ amount was larger than the UK standard portion of cheese of 30g, or ‘matchbox’ size. How could it be possible that cheese, known for containing copious amounts of saturated fat and salt, could play some role in reducing cardiovascular risk? It seemed extremely unlikely when sat fat and salt are the archenemies of heart health. Was this another case of ‘fake’ news? Or was there something else going on? I knew I had to investigate before the cheesy headline would be used by some hungry teenagers to justify overconsumption on my home turf. And time was of the essence, with Christmas coming up and cheese aplenty being promoted in every supermarket aisle. It was already becoming harder to resist yet another new cheese to try for festive entertaining. Especially because with kids off from school, we were suddenly going through food quicker which meant being accompanied more often whilst grocery shopping.

I looked into the study and it was clear that all was not what it seemed. As the analysis focused solely on the amount of cheese consumed, it didn’t look at what type of cheese and its fat content or any other dairy products consumed, let alone anything else in the participants’ diets. In addition, the analysis only looked at several observational studies which are not the gold standard of studies. They rely on participants to accurately recall information but common sense tells you that when it comes to questions about food consumption, people are rarely precise with their portion sizes nor are they very forthcoming. Which makes the findings rather curious. Why did they find that eating the magic 40g cheese per day reduced risk when eating less than or more than 40g increased the risk?

The truth is that we simply don’t know why the study showed a decrease in risk. But that does not conclusively mean that the cheese should get all the credit. Cheese may taste great and be a good source of protein, calcium and vitamins. However, there is no getting around the fact that eating too much of it can lead to becoming overweight and developing ill health, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease. Many people already eat far more than a matchbox size piece of cheese on a daily basis and clearly the amount of cheese increases significantly over Christmas. In other words, we don’t need any encouraging to eat even more cheese. In the end, this study may be another small addition to the body of evidence that is looking closer at the role of saturated fat from dairy products in our diets. Until we know whether it may be protective or not to eat particular sources of dietary fat, it is always sensible to return to what we already know. When it comes to a healthy diet it pays to eat everything in moderation.

So as I attempt to finish my final preparations before Christmas, I will still try to have the odd little snack of Wensleydale and cranberry without alerting the hungry troops. I have realised that when it comes to cheese, the selective listening of teenagers only translates the concept of eating in moderation to eating everything moderately quickly. My only hope is that they will reach a tipping point of peak cheese consumption. Only a couple of days before Christmas and they still seem to be winning the war of teenagers vs cheese…

Thinking I could perhaps reduce the cheese consumption or at least hide it among some healthy stuff, I decided to make a Wholewheat cheese bread. You can make it using any leftover cheese you have from Christmas.

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