The French are a perplexing bunch for scientists who study diet and nutrition — and for cheese lovers who want to stay healthy.
On average, the French eat more saturated fat than the World Health Organisation says is good for them. They also ate more cheese, which can be high in saturated fat, than any other country in the world in 2014.
Since higher saturated fat intake usually correlates with greater death rates from coronary heart disease, the numbers predict the French should die from coronary heart disease more often then they do.
In reality, France has low rates of death from coronary heart disease, a phenomenon known as “the French paradox.” It basically looks like the French can munch on fatty and salty cheese all they want without negative health impacts.
The French propensity to enjoy wine frequently is a popular explanation of this apparent contradiction. But a new paper in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry suggests another aspect of the French diet that may play a role in the paradox: all that cheese.
The scientists behind this paper analysed data from a small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014. That study found that people who ate a diet for two weeks containing saturated fats from milk and cheese didn’t have as high blood cholesterol as those who ate the same amount of saturated fats from butter instead of cheese. (High blood cholesterol is linked to heart disease, so is used to approximate risk of heart disease in short-term studies.)
The authors of the new paper analysed urine and faeces samples collected during the initial experiment to see if the products of digestion — the compounds the body produces when breaking down food — were different for the groups that ate milk and cheese versus the group that ate butter. They thought that somehow the type of food eaten may have impacted how it was used and broken down by the body.
Interestingly, they found that the cheese group’s urine had lower levels of a compound called trimethylamine N-oxide, which has been identified as a potential indicator of cardiovascular disease. The cheese group also had more of a molecule called butyrate and other short chain fatty acids in its faeces. Higher butyrate levels corresponded to lower cholesterol, the researchers found, which they hypothesized might happen because butyrate stops cholesterol from forming in the body.
While these differences can’t be directly linked to cheese eating, the researchers think that cheese and potentially other milk products could influence the activity of bacteria that live in the gut, possibly encouraging the ones that are good for your cholesterol levels.
Granted, these results are preliminary and the researchers note more research is needed to find out exactly what the link is between cheese eating and cholesterol levels. The experiment was also tiny, done on only 15 participants, all men.
But it’s another reason to keep on loving cheese, if you needed one.
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