UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — If you’ve been on the hunt for a new excuse to eat more cheese, look no further. A Penn State University study finds that the naturally occurring antioxidants in cheese may help protect blood vessels from potential damage caused by a high-sodium diet.
Researchers had a group of adults adhere to a high-sodium diet. Consequently, those adults began to experience blood vessel dysfunction. Interestingly, once the research team had the same group of adults start to incorporate four servings of cheese per day to their high-sodium diet, their blood vessel problems disappeared.
The study’s authors believe their findings can help people make more informed dietary decisions and minimize the risks associated with consuming too much salt.
“While there’s a big push to reduce dietary sodium, for a lot of people it’s difficult,” comments study leader Billie Alba in a release. “Possibly being able to incorporate more dairy products, like cheese, could be an alternative strategy to reduce cardiovascular risk and improve vessel health without necessarily reducing total sodium.”
Sodium is absolutely essential to the human body in small doses, but too much will almost certainly lead to cardiovascular problems like high blood pressure. For reference, The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 2,300 milligrams of sodium per day, with the ideal amount for most adults being somewhere around 1,500 mg per day.
According to the research team, prior studies have already detected a connection between dairy products, even cheeses high in sodium themselves, and improved heart health.
“Studies have shown that people who consume the recommended number of dairy servings each day typically have lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health in general,” explains Lacy Alexander, a professor of kinesiology at Penn State and co-researcher on the study . “We wanted to look at those connections more closely as well as explore some of the precise mechanisms by which cheese, a dairy product, may affect heart health.”
For the study, 11 adults with no history of sodium-related blood problems were gathered together. Each participant adhered to four different diets for eight days at a time: a low-sodium, no-dairy diet; a low-sodium, high-cheese diet; a high-sodium, no-dairy diet; and a high-sodium, high-cheese diet.
During low-sodium diets, participants were consuming 1,500 mg of salt per day, while high-sodium diets constituted 5,500 mg of salt per day. As mentioned before, the cheese diets included about four servings (170 grams) per day. Participants also enjoyed the perk of eating several different types of cheese over the course of the study.
After each week-long diet, participants visited the researchers for blood vessel functioning testing, blood pressure monitoring, and urine sample collections. In order to measure blood vessel functioning, researchers used a drug called acetylcholine that signals for blood vessels to relax; healthy blood vessels should have no problem responding to the drug and relaxing, while vessels damaged by excess sodium would have a harder time relaxing.
Following the high-sodium, no-dairy diet, participants’ blood vessels did not respond well to the acetylcholine and had trouble relaxing. Conversely, this effect was not observed after participants’ had eaten a high-sodium, high-cheese diet for eight days.
“While the participants were on the high-sodium diet without any cheese, we saw their blood vessel function dip to what you would typically see in someone with pretty advanced cardiovascular risk factors,” Alexander says. “But when they consumed the same amount of salt, and ate cheese as a source of that salt, those effects were completely avoided.”
The study’s authors say they can’t definitively pinpoint one specific nutrient in cheese responsible for these cardiovascular benefits, but the data indicates that the antioxidants found in cheese are likely a major contributing factor.
“Consuming high amounts of sodium causes an increase in molecules that are harmful to blood vessel health and overall heart health,” Alba concludes. “There is scientific evidence that dairy-based nutrients, specifically peptides generated during the digestion of dairy proteins, have beneficial antioxidant properties, meaning that they have the ability to scavenge these oxidant molecules and thereby protect against their damaging physiological effects.”
Alba would like to continue investigating dairy products’ impact on cardiovascular health, and more specifically, conduct a larger experiment with more subjects on the effects of a high-dairy diet on blood vessel functioning.
The study is published in The Journal of Nutrition.