Welcome to Flavors We Savor, a blog series dedicated to helping you find ways to enjoy the flavors you love most without derailing your health goals. Whether you’re a salt fan or you have a mean sweet tooth, we know it’s not realistic to avoid certain foods altogether. Instead, we’ll show you new ways to savor your old favorites.
Once you know that you’re living with a chronic condition like heart disease or high blood pressure, you might begin approaching certain lifestyle habits differently, including nutrition. For example, you’ll likely benefit from limiting your intake of saturated fat—something that tends to be pretty high in your favorite cheesy, creamy dishes. So, how do you preserve those cheesy flavors you know and love without compromising your health?
To be clear, there’s absolutely nothing “wrong” with eating cheese, or any other kind of dairy, for that matter. It’s all about figuring out what your body can use from these foods and how to enjoy them in moderation. In fact, whether you live with diabetes or a heart condition, it’s actually recommended to have two to three servings of low-fat dairy per day to ensure adequate intake of calcium, vitamins D and A, potassium, protein, and other essential nutrients, says One Drop coach, Jackie, a registered dietitian/nutritionist (RDN) and certified diabetes care and education specialist (CDCES).
Not sure what a serving of dairy looks like? Here’s a quick breakdown of examples:
Understanding the Fat Content In Cheesy Dishes
A potential issue with dairy is its fat content, says Jackie. “Full-fat dairy foods are higher in saturated fat, which may be linked to an increased risk of heart disease,” she explains. “Many of these foods also tend to be higher in sodium, which, in excess amounts, can increase blood pressure.” Plus, the higher the fat content in any food, the higher its calorie content is likely to be, too.
One solution is to opt for non-fat or reduced-fat dairy, which can still provide the nutrients you need without exceeding the recommended daily amount of either saturated fat or sodium.
It’s also not a bad idea to lean toward hard, “stinky” cheeses, such as parmesan, which can “deliver big flavor in small amounts,” says Christen Cooper, RDN, assistant professor and founder of the department of nutrition and dietetics at Pace University. “Just a couple of tablespoons can bring a dish alive without the extra fat,” she says.
While pasta is probably the first dish to come to mind when you think of parmesan cheese, don’t be afraid to get more creative than that. Sprinkle some reduced-fat parmesan cheese over a bowl of popcorn, soup, or even a plate of veggies like Brussels sprouts or tomatoes.
Playing with Plant-Based Ingredients
Another option for satisfying your need for cheese while prioritizing your health is to explore plant-based alternatives. There’s no shortage of vegan cheeses, milk, and other types of “dairy” products to be found at your local grocery store. But there’s also a star ingredient that any cheese-loving plant-based eater is bound to experiment with at one point or another: nutritional yeast.
In case you’ve never heard of it, nutritional yeast is a food supplement of dried yeast that offers a savory umami flavor (think: the richness of a good broth or cooked meat) that’s comparable to the flavor of cheese.
“Nutritional yeast is fortified with B vitamins such as folate, B12, B6, riboflavin, niacin, thiamine, and potassium,” explains Jackie. “B vitamins are important for metabolism, brain health, skin health, and energy. They also provide some extra potassium that, when paired with a low-sodium diet, may help to reduce blood pressure.”
So, whenever you’re craving something cheesy, but want to stay plant-based for the meal, simply sprinkle nutritional yeast (a typical serving is about two tablespoons) on popcorn, scrambled eggs, vegetables, or you can even combine it with other ingredients to make a “cheesy” sauce, says Jackie. To whip up a quick, dairy-free “cheese” sauce, blend soaked cashews, lemon juice, nutritional yeast, pepper, garlic powder, water, paprika, and, if you want, a touch of salt, to desired consistency. Pour the mixture over macaroni, stir it into soup for added umami and nutrition, use it as a dipping sauce, or even enjoy it straight-up (we won’t judge).
Many plant-based eaters are also a fan of xanthan gum, a vegan food additive that can make a dish thicker and “silky smooth” in texture, says Michelin-starred chef, Eduard Frauneder. Just blend it with whatever liquid-y mixture you’d like to thicken, and voila!
No matter which way you choose to enjoy your favorite cheesy and creamy flavors, if you use a glucose meter to manage your blood sugar levels, consider testing your blood sugar before and after trying any new food or ingredient to understand how it affects your body.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Alexa Stelzer, RDN, CDCES, and clinical health coach at One Drop.