Is Cheese Good for People with Diabetes?

For people with blood sugar balance on their mind, cheese is a great addition to the diet—especially when it's eaten alongside other higher-in-carbohydrate foods such as fruits, whole grains chips and crackers.

Cheese may long be feared by everyone as a delicious-but-don’t-touch-it delicacy. Yet as a registered dietitian and certified diabetes care and education specialist, this calcium and vitamin D-rich food is something I recommend to many of my nutrition counseling clients, even those who are managing diabetes.

Can People with Diabetes Eat Cheese?

Absolutely; cheese is a great option for diabetes. It helps to keep blood sugar in check—something that people with diabetes have to be particularly careful about. So long as you enjoy its creamy texture and it doesn’t stir up tummy trouble, cheese is something I suggest everyone consider including in their daily diet!

The key is eating cheese in a way that supports good glucose control without any negative impacts on heart health. Knowing which types of cheeses to opt for, which types of foods to pair it with, and what to keep an eye out for on the label when purchasing it can help.

Benefits of Cheese for People with Diabetes

May Lower the Risk or Slow the Progression of Type 2 Diabetes

In a large research study of over 25,000 people, women who ate the highest amounts of cheese had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In another smaller study of people with prediabetes, those who ate one serving of full-fat cheese four or more times per week had a 63% lower chance of going on to develop type 2 diabetes.

Researchers aren’t entirely sure why cheese eaters seem to be a bit more protected from diabetes, but they suspect that a combination of fatty acids, protein and the beneficial bacteria from fermentation may help protect the body from abnormalities related to blood sugar regulation.

Keeps Blood Sugar Stable After Meals

Ounce for ounce, cheese contains the same—and in some cases more—blood-sugar-stabilizing protein than other go-to sources such as meats and poultry. Sprinkle one ounce of Parmesan cheese, for example, on your pasta to add 11 grams of protein to the meal, which is more than the 8 grams found in a similar amount of chicken. Adding a one-ounce slice of Swiss cheese to your next sandwich will boost the protein content by 8 grams.

Another reason cheese is particularly helpful for those with diabetes? It contains a unique type of protein, called whey, which is made up of amino acids that are known to help dampen down after-meal blood sugar by stimulating beta cells in the pancreas to produce more insulin.

Risks of Eating Cheese for People with Diabetes

High in Fat and Calories

Yes, some cheeses are high in fat which means they are also high in calories. To avoid eating more than your body needs at any given meal, enjoy cheese-containing meals and snacks slowly; this makes it easier for you to listen to fullness signals from within your gut and stop when you’re satisfied.

In addition to fat, which takes a long time to digest, the high protein content of cheese works similarly to stave off hunger, meaning that a small portion is doubly effective when it comes to keeping you full. Also good to know: according to some studies, cheese doesn’t increase LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol the way other sources of saturated fat such as butter do.

Dairy Allergies or Intolerances

If you have an allergy to one or more of the proteins in milk such as whey or casein then, of course, cow or goat’s milk-based cheese can trigger a serious immune-system reaction involving mild to serious hives, rashes or wheezing and should be considered completely off-limits.

If you have lactose intolerance, which is a gastrointestinal disorder that makes it difficult to digest a sugar in milk called lactose, then you maybe be able to tolerate small amounts of low-in-lactose cheeses such as Parmesan or cheddar without issues. Check with your doctor before trying them to make sure they won’t cause any serious or long-lasting discomfort or harm.

High in Sodium

People with diabetes—as well as most Americans—are advised to limit sodium in their diet as it is linked with high blood pressure and an increased risk of heart disease.

Since salt is added to most cheeses to both enhance flavor and act as a natural preservative, it’s important to be aware of the limits when choosing the best cheeses for your diet. Opting for those at the lower end of the sodium spectrum is your best bet, which means checking nutrition labels and sticking with ones that are 140 mg of sodium or less per serving.

What Kind of Cheeses Can People with Diabetes Eat?

That depends on your biggest concern, of course! Most cheeses are considered low or no-carb foods, meaning they contain less than five grams of carbohydrate per serving—and, in fact, most contain even less than that, clocking in at two, one or even zero grams of carbs per ounce. If you’re strictly counting carbohydrates, it’s important to note that a few are slightly higher in carbohydrates including cottage cheese and processed cheeses.

On the other hand, if sodium is an issue, cottage cheese might be a great option as you can find no salt added option; at just 60 mg of sodium per serving, it’s one of the lowest sodium cheeses you can find. Ricotta and Swiss are also reliable options when you’re looking to slash sodium and still get a good dose of the protein, calcium and vitamin D that cheese offers.

What Kinds of Cheeses Should People with Diabetes Avoid?

Unless you really love them, processed cheese like American cheese and those that are low fat are best to consider off-limits. Processed cheese often has a variety of additives that can impact the carbohydrate, fat, protein and sodium content in unpredictable ways.

From my experience, low-fat cheeses aren’t as satisfying and don’t have the same great taste; therefore, people eat a larger portion or add other flavor enhancers or condiments to a meal—such as extra ketchup on a burger or dressing on a salad. Extra and unwanted sodium might also be added to make up for the lack of texture and taste.

A better approach is going for the full-fat kinds, allowing yourself to truly enjoy them, and cutting back on portion sizes if you have concerns about calories or fat.

How People with Diabetes Should Eat Cheese

If you’re still concerned about cheese feeling too indulgent, you can offset the fat and calories by pairing the cheese with mild-tasting and low-fat, low-calorie foods such as fruits, like grapes and apple slices, and fresh vegetables, like sliced tomatoes or cucumbers. Pick options like a fruit and cheese board or a Caprese salad for a healthy choice.

You can also use this high protein, high fat and highly satisfying food as a way to smooth out daily spikes in blood sugar that you might otherwise get by eating high-carbohydrate foods on their own. For example, pair a smear of your favorite soft cheese on whole grain crackers, melt a slice on high-fiber toast, or melt shredded varieties on tortilla chips.

Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDN, CDCES
Amelia Sherry, MPH, RD, CDCES, provides nutrition therapy via a New York-based private practice. She is also the founder of NourishHer, which supports mothers and daughters who want to have happy, healthy relationships with food and body. Amelia has written for publications including Reader's Digest, Family Circle, Fitness, SELF, Redbook, Latina, Today's Dietitian and Woman's World. She is also the author of 'Diet-Proof Your Daughter,' which you can find on Amazon.