The Good, The Bad, and The Ayurvedic Perspective

When we think of cheese, we may imagine cows roaming freely in the Swiss Alps or Europeans picnicking with wine and baguettes. We probably don’t immediately think of Ayurveda. In fact, in general, Ayurveda frowns on the consumption of hard cheeses. But there’s good news: it approves of soft cheeses!7

Fermenting dairy into yogurt, buttermilk, or cheese was a favorite way to preserve milk throughout winter—a practice made popular in Europe, but which may have originated in India some 6,000 years ago as a soft cheese called paneer.2

In a trip to the mountain malgas(cheese huts) in Italy’s Dolomites, I found a traditional mountain dairy still making sour kasse, a soft cheese made in almost the exact way paneer is made in India.
These styles of cheesemaking don’t use salt, which allow the cheese to stay soft. To make sour kasse, you just set the milk out in a pan and let it curdle naturally.
In India, lemon is used to initiate the curdling. Hard cheeses are made by rubbing in salt, which allows the cheese to store for long periods of time during a cold winter. Salt makes cheese hard and more dense and heavy, which can make these cheeses tamasic, or dulling for the mind, according to Ayurveda. Light soft cheeses like paneer are considered sattvic, or clarifying for the mind.
Because of the heavy nature of full-fat dairy, it balances vata. This is why soft cheeses like paneer, as well as ghee, yogurt, buttermilks, and lassi are all good for vata types and generally beneficial in the winter. Even hard cheeses are okay in moderation for vatas as long as digestive strength is good. For pitta and kapha types, lighter, softer and unsalted cheeses are best.
Ayurvedic rules do not just apply to India—during my training in India, it was drilled into my head that Ayurveda was a universal science and not just an Indian system of medicine, so the rules must apply globally. In Europe, particularly in the winter, the climate (and therefore seasonal foods) are different than in India. In the heat of India, hard cheeses would aggravate pitta, and also melt. In a hot climate, we do not want to add heating, heavy, dense, and harder-to-digest foods. In colder Europe, however, cheese was critical to winter survival.

According to Ayurveda (and now Western science), the colder the climate, the stronger the digestive strength, making it more feasible to digest hard dense cheeses in the winter. Studies have found that in colder weather (i.e. fall and winter), the digestive-boosting parasympathetic nervous system becomes dominant, as does the production of the digestive enzyme amylase, which is critical for digesting fall-harvested starches, such as grains and tubers.23

In the summer, foods are cooked on the vine by the sun and require less digestive heat on our part. In India, where temperatures are significantly warmer year-round, the digestive strength will be much weaker and more amenable to easier-to-digest foods, such as soft, simple, fresh, less-heating cheeses.

It is also important to note that the amount of dairy eaten in a traditional Ayurvedic diet was very little. I lived in India and never saw anyone drink a glass of milk or eat ice cream and the amount of paneer cheese eaten was minimal.

There are also parts of the world where dairy was never eaten and therefore descendants of these areas may not have the genetic capacity to digest dairy. This must also be taken into consideration when assessing dairy’s digestibility.

Ayurveda recommends a 90-95% plant-based diet, with only dairy (not eggs or meat) making up the animal food sources. The dairy was mostly cultured before consuming it—even ghee was made from cultured milk.

The small amount of grass-fed dairy included in the Ayurvedic diet provides the necessary omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin B12 that is missing a 100% vegan diet.8, 9 To be a healthy vegan, supplements of B12, vitamin D3, and omega-3s are recommended.

NOTE: Only a 100% whole food, plant-based vegan diet has been able to reverse heart disease, suggesting that a vegan diet may be the healthiest, most cleansing and repairing diet on the planet.24No other diet has been able to make these claims. But, without supplementation, a 100% vegan diet is unsustainable. Ayurveda offers a diet more similar to the longest-lived centenarians, who tend to eat a 90-95% plant-based diet.

Dairy also provides heart-healthy vitamin K2, which has been shown in many studies to protect the body from cardiovascular disease. Studies show that K2 has matrix proteins, which direct the high amount of calcium in dairy away from arteries and towards bones.

Vitamin K1 is found in vegetables, but does not convert efficiently into K2. It seems nature has something in place like K2 to prevent cardiovascular risk.(28

In the past few decades, cheese has been labelled unhealthy for your heart and arteries because of its high saturated fat content. Recently, the research tide seems to have shifted, finding saturated fats in cheese to be neutral or even heart-healthy.1

In December 2017, an exhaustive meta-analysis of 15 observational studies measured the cheese consumption of adults who did not have heart disease for more than 10 years. They were grouped into high or low cheese consumption groups.

The study found that there was an inverse relationship between cheese consumption and cardiovascular disease. In other words, the more cheese they ate, the less likely they were to have cardiovascular disease! The greatest reduction of heart health risk was seen at around 40 grams of cheese per day.1

Another study suggests that milk has a neutral effect on cardiovascular health concerns, but fermented dairy products, such as yogurt, kefir, and cheese may have a positive effect.3

Researchers found that the risk of heart disease increased when saturated fats were replaced with sugar and refined carbohydrates. This study found that a diet of reduced saturated fat may actually increase the risk of heart disease!4

Many of us have been taught that saturated fats cause heart disease by increasing cholesterol. But the link between high cholesterol and heart disease is actually very weak.25 Ketogenic diet proponents cite science showing that saturated fats are not related to heart disease and in fact can be protective.26

I will tackle this brewing keto controversy in an upcoming article, so stay tuned!

Back to cheese . . .

Science on the other side of the cheese aisle (vegan studies) continue to blame saturated fats found in meat and dairy for increased risk of heart disease. A study in the British Medical Journal reports the following: “Around a 5% higher intake of longer chain dietary SFAs (12-18 carbons), found in hard cheese, whole milk, butter, beef, and chocolate, is associated with a 25% increased risk of coronary heart disease.”5

So who are we to believe? Does saturated fat lead to heart disease or not? The discrepancies in the science may be due to the source of the saturated fats, the types of carbohydrates consumed ALONG with the saturated fat, and other dietary and lifestyle factors.

Vegan activist Dr. Michael Greger, author of the book How Not To Die, makes a compelling case that decades of research linking dairy intake to heart disease spurred the dairy industry to fight back. In the last 5-10 years, dairy-industry-backed researchers have published numerous observational studies (like the one cited above) that are known to not be powerful enough to provide conclusive predictions of cardiovascular risk.10

This influence of the dairy industry may be why almost all the recent studies on dairy and heart health seem to be pro-dairy.11-16 The studies that link saturated fat to cardiovascular disease are usually much older studies.10

It should also be noted that many of the studies finding heart benefits from dairy are from Europe and Asia, not the US. One massive meta-analysis of more than 140,000 individuals (mostly from Europe and Asia) found dairy to be protective, neutral, or mildly inflammatory.27 Yes, these studies are still observational, but the quantity of these pro-dairy studies is staggering.

Confused?

While studies on the cardiovascular risk of dairy are controversial, the link between high dairy intake and cancer may be more concrete.
For example, studies linking prostate cancer to increased dairy consumption are not hard to find.17-19 But the link between dairy and breast cancer is controversial, with some studies finding a link and others not.20-22More on dairy and cancer in a future article . . .

The Ayurvedic Perspective

With so much conflicting information, I thank god for ancient wisdom. With the science being so controversial, we have to look to our ancestors for some guidance.

As I mentioned throughout this article, dairy is a part of the Ayurvedic diet—and for good reason! A certain amount of animal protein and fat seems to be necessary for a plant-based diet to be sustainable. A vegan diet requires B12, vitamin D3 and omega-3 supplementation (and, in some cases, a multi-vitamin-mineral supplement as well).

Dairy consumed as part of an Ayurvedic diet is organic, raw or vat-pasteurized, grass-fed, and seasonal. It is taken mostly cultured into yogurt, ghee, soft cheese, or buttermilk and always consumed in small quantities. Most centenarians around the world consume small amounts of dairy products much the way Ayurveda suggests.

Vat- or batch-pasteurization heats the milk only to 145°F for 30 minutes. The milk will stay fresh for only about a week, much the way raw milk would behave.(29)

Also, remember dairy is a seasonal food. It is not readily available in the spring or summer, as traditional herders reserve mother’s milk for the baby cow, sheep, or goat. This is critical in order for the calf to become mature enough to survive a long cold winter. In Ayurveda, this is kapha season—the season of famine, where light (not heavy) foods are consumed. The fall is the end of pitta season and the beginning of vata season: a time of feasting, when excess milk is harvested and made in to butter, ghee, buttermilk, yogurt, or cheese. These fats help store reserved fuel and insulation for the cold winter months to come.

Sourcing Cheese

Ayurvedic soft cheeses like paneer are made without salt. Most cheeses have high sodium content and come winter, when vegetables become less abundant, there is a tendency to eat more soups and pre-packaged foods that are also very high in sodium and low in potassium.

Keeping your potassium intake 2-4 times greater than your sodium intake is critical for the function of your sodium-potassium pump, which drives energy from every cell and maintains proper lymphatic flow and cardio-vascular health. Low-sodium cheeses like Swiss, Emmental, mozzarella, cream, goat, Monterey Jack, ricotta, parmesan, and brick cheeses are some good options.

Note: Many healthy folks who have gotten in the habit of eating high amounts of veggies and no processed food with reduced animal protein are often low in salt and high in potassium. For these folks (often with low blood pressure), salted cheeses are healthy.

Low-Salt Swiss Cheese!

Swiss cheese is loaded with a healthy probiotic called Propionibacterium freudenreichii, responsible for many health benefits, including boosting longevity and immunity and combating inflammation.6 This superfood bacteria is also found in Emmental and, in case you’re wondering, it’s the bacteria responsible for the holes in your Swiss cheese.6

Should I Eat Cheese Or Not?

Once again, consume non-processed, grass-fed, raw or vat-pasteurized29 cheeses seasonally in moderation and mostly in the winter. In the summer (pitta season), they are too heating and in the spring (kapha season), they are too heavy. Small amounts of soft cheeses are traditional. Goat and sheep cheeses are lighter and much easier to digest.

Bon appétit!