We get it: cheese is one of your favorite foods. We don’t even blame you—it’s delicious any way you slice it (pun intended!), whether it’s melted, shredded, or just cubed onto a charcuterie board full of salami and bread.
But, like so many other things that taste good, cheese has to be consumed in moderation. Yes, it’s hard to stop eating it once you get started, but not stopping means you’re consuming a lot of fat, calories, and sodium. That’s not only less-than-healthy for you in the short-term (it may cause gas and bloating in some people), but can be unhealthy for you in the long-term, too (think the increased risk of high cholesterol and heart disease).
What’s more, an awful lot of people can’t even process dairy foods like cheese all that well. If you’re even a little lacking in the enzyme needed to properly digest lactose, loading up your meals with creamy, tangy, gooey cheese is going to leave you with a very unhappy belly.
We asked three dietitians to tell us what happens when you eat too much cheese, for the lactose tolerant and intolerant alike. Here’s what they said. Read on, and for more on how to eat healthy, don’t miss 7 Healthiest Foods to Eat Right Now.
If you chow down on mac and cheese only to find yourself full of uncomfortable regret soon after, you can probably blame all the cheddar, swiss, and gouda in your bubbly pasta bake.
People who struggle to digest dairy (or who, you know, eat gobs of it on the regular) are likely to wind up pretty bloated within 30 minutes to two hours, says Amy Gorin, MS, RDN, a plant-based registered dietitian and owner of Plant-Based Eats in Stamford, CT.
Obviously, cutting back on your overall cheese consumption can help, but if you’re still experiencing a lot of bloating after eating even small amounts of cheese, you can try mixing up your varieties: Gorin says Muenster, Brie, and Camembert have less lactose than some of their other cheese counterparts, so they may be easier to digest and cause fewer side effects.
If you’re one of the many unlucky adults with a limited ability to digest lactose—a number that registered dietitian Sarah Rueven, MS, CDN, founder of Rooted Wellness says is about 65%—then overconsumption of dairy products can cause serious discomfort.
“When someone with a lactose intolerance consumes cheese, the lactase in the cheese isn’t broken down and is instead fermented in the gut by bacteria,” explains Rueven, who says this can result in diarrhea…among several other unpleasant GI symptoms.
If you’re super lactose intolerant and eat too much cheese, all that lactose will move into your colon instead of being processed and absorbed within the body says Gorin.
“In the colon, the undigested lactose combines with the normal bacteria [and] causes gas,” she explains.
Per the FDA, experiencing gas soon after eating dairy products like cheese is one of the most common telltale signs of having insufficient lactase (i.e. the enzyme that breaks down the lactose, or sugar, in dairy products).
Yes, not drinking enough water can easily lead to dehydration…but so can eating foods high in sodium, like creamy casseroles and double-decker cheeseburgers.
“Cheese is a food that’s higher in sodium,” says Gorin, “[and] this can add up quickly, especially if you eat more than one slice at a time.”
Signs that your eating habits are making you dehydrated include headache and decreased urination, so make sure you’re intentionally hydrating before or after sodium-rich meals to avoid drying out.
On the flip side, because cheese is high in sodium, Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition, says it can also cause people who are salt-sensitive to retain water. That’s why individuals on low-sodium diets, like those with heart disease or high cholesterol, are often told to limit or avoid cheese.
Eating too much cheese can set you up for a greater risk of heart disease, says Rueven, since the high sodium levels raise your blood pressure (hello, increased stroke risk) and the saturated fat elevates your bad cholesterol.
Need a quick refresher on saturated fat? According to Shapiro, it’s the type of fat that remains solid at room temperature and therefore, can clog your arteries.
“Saturated fat increases our bad cholesterol levels and, when consumed too often, can become unhealthy,” she says.
The good news, though? You don’t have to cut out cheese completely to avoid these side effects, emphasizes Rueven: “Eating cheese in moderation is not going to drastically elevate cholesterol and blood pressure, so enjoy it on occasion or use it in small amounts to garnish a salad or soup.” You can also try 10 Low-Fat Cheeses You Can Eat When You’re Losing Weight.
So here’s where some common misconceptions about cheese really work against us.
“Because people tend to think of cheese as a ‘low-carb’ food or one high in protein, they add it to many menu items like salads, sandwiches, and omelets, and enjoy it for snacks,” says Shapiro.
The problem? One ounce of cheese contains about 100 calories and eight grams of fat, she adds, so it’s not the “healthy” food many people see it as—instead, it pretty quickly increases your overall fat and calorie intake.
Over time, your cheese habits can lead to weight gain.
“Cheese is high in fat and fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient, meaning it provides more calories per gram,” says Rueven. “Consuming any food in excess, especially those high in fat like cheese, can cause weight gain if your overall calorie intake exceeds your daily requirements.” If weight loss is your main goal, don’t miss these Simple Ways to Start Losing Weight Immediately, According to Science.