HEALTHY LIVING

All That Cheese Might Be What's Keeping French People So Healthy

05/01/2015 11:07 am ET | Updated May 04, 2015
IvanMikhaylov via Getty Images

A diet rich in cheese might actually give you a metabolic boost, according to new research. But lest you think this is a gift from some celestial dairy fairy, there are a few important caveats.

The study, published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, linked a diet rich in cheese with higher levels of a compound called butyric acid, which is associated with decreased risk of obesity and faster metabolism.

Food scientist Hanne Bertram of Aarhus University in Denmark and her team took urine and fecal samples from 15 healthy men who each ate one of three diets for two weeks. All three of the diets had the same number of calories and grams of fat, but one required eating 1.7 grams of cheese from full fat cow's milk a day, one contained dairy made with 1.5 percent milk fat, and the third involved butter, but no other dairy.

The men who consumed the two dairy-filled diets, but especially those who ate cheese, had increased levels of butyrate in their feces and lower levels of a metabolite that increases high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the healthy kind of cholesterol.

The researchers believe their pro-cheese finding may help solve the so-called French paradox, a perplexing phenomenon in which French people, who tend to have diets rich in cholesterol and saturated fat -- they consume up to 57 pounds of cheese a year -- somehow have low rates of heart disease and a relatively high average life expectancy of 82 years. For comparison's sake, just across the channel, British people have twice the heart disease-related deaths, though a similar life expectancy. And though the U.K. is not known for a tradition of healthy eating, with a diet rich in red meat and fried food, British people consume about half as much cheese as the French.

The new discovery must be taken with a curd grain of salt, as there were very few participants in the study. It should also be noted that the researchers received some funding from Arla Foods, a food company that produces dairy products.

Previous experiments have found cheese consumption doesn't appear to affect a person's weight, however. A recent analysis of three separate, long-term studies involving 120,000 men and women suggested that consuming milk fat, which is found in full fat cheeses and whole milk, doesn't seem to affect a person's weight in the longterm. This same analysis found that full-fat dairy products may actually have a more positive effect on reducing obesity than low-fat versions: People who eat the latter tend to be less satisfied and turn to carbohydrates to compensate.

Cheese is not the only food that may help account for France's healthier bon vivance. Some researchers hypothesize the French paradox may have something to do with the amount of red wine French people consume. The drink contains resveratrol, a substance that has been associated with longevity when consumed in high doses. Only time and more research will tell, but if the French have tapped into some fountain of youth with their wine and cheese pairings, we'll be happy to lead a toast to them.

CORRECTION: Due to an editor's error, a previous version of this story misidentified the country in which the University of Aarhus is located.

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