Various types of cheese.

A  buttery Brie, some zippy Gorgonzola, a sprinkle of nutty Parmesan—whether cheese is eaten on its own or as an ingredient in recipes, Americans love it. Annual consumption has been growing steadily for decades, and last year reached about 39 pounds per person; that’s about three-fourths of a pound per week. But as we nibble away, concerns about calories, sodium, and fat persist. So where does cheese fit in a healthy diet?

“Cheese is a nutritious food. It’s a concentrated source of protein and calcium,” says Joan Salge Blake, RDN, a clinical professor of nutrition at Boston University and host of the nutrition and health podcast Spot On. An ounce of cheddar, for instance, has almost 200 mg of calcium and 8 grams of protein.

Where we often go wrong is in the way we eat it (on pizza, in deli sandwiches, with crackers). Here’s how to make cheese a nutrition win.

1. Consider Fat and Calories

The major concerns about cheese are that much of its fat is the heart-unfriendly saturated type and that it packs a lot of calories in a small amount. Brie, for example, has about 6 grams of saturated fat and 120 calories in a quarter-cup (about an ounce). That’s about one-third of the maximum amount of saturated fat someone eating 1,500 calories should have in a day. Cheeses that are lower in saturated fat and calories include fresh mozzarella, soft goat cheese, feta, and ricotta.

More on Healthy Eating

But some research suggests that dairy fat may not be as harmful as once thought. A 2018 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, involving almost 3,000 men and women ages 65 and older, found no connection between levels of fatty acids in the blood from dairy and a higher risk of heart disease or death from any cause.

Still, you don’t want to consume too much of any kind of saturated fat. “The dose makes the poison,” says Alexandra Salcedo, RDN, a clinical dietitian at UC San Diego Health. In a 2015 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, replacing just 5 percent of saturated fat with the unsaturated kind—found in foods like nuts, olive oil, and avocados—reduced heart disease risk up to 25 percent.

For a healthy portion, stick with 1 or 2 ounces. “Savor cheese, but stretch it,” Salge Blake says. Use a cheese knife (it yields thinner slices), and pick a flavorful variety like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Stilton, or feta so that you’ll be satisfied with a smaller helping.

2. Upgrade Your Pairings

Instead of piling cheese on crackers typically made with refined grains and sometimes added sugars, pair it with fruits and vegetables, which most Americans don’t get enough of. This swap will add nutrients and fill you up more, thanks to the fiber and water in produce. Salcedo likes mozzarella balls with cherry tomatoes and basil drizzled with balsamic vinegar, and honey-whipped ricotta with fresh sliced figs and pistachios. If you like crackers, look for ones that are 100 percent whole grain and contain 150 mg of sodium or less per serving. 

3. Have Cheese in Place of Meat

Trying to eat vegetarian some days? Incorporate cheese in a veggie-rich omelet, salad, soup, or grain bowl. “Cheese enhances the protein and fat intake of your meals to help promote fullness for longer,” Salcedo says, “and may delay absorption of blood sugar into the body.”

Salge Blake makes lentil soup full of vitamin-­dense vegetables and completely covers the top with a thin layer of Parmesan grated with a microplane. Incidentally, if you have trouble digesting lactose (a common problem as we age), cheeses like Parmesan and manchego are a good bet. “The harder the cheese, the less lactose,” she says. 

4. Try It for Dessert

Instead of following dinner with a piece of cake or slice of pie, make a small cheese plate with Brie or another favorite cheese, plus nuts and fresh or dried fruit. You’ll get calcium and protein, save a lot of added sugars, and finish your meal with a true treat. 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the January 2021 issue of Consumer Reports On Health