Among the world’s developed countries, France has one of the lowest average body mass indexes.
Despite a typical diet heavy in meat and saturated fats, the French manage to stay thin, and also have low rates of cardiovascular disease. The perplexing contradiction even has a name: the French paradox.
Now, researchers may have cracked the mystery.
In a study published in the American Chemical Society’s Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers from two Danish universities, Aarhus University and University of Copenhagen, found that cheese may play a role in reducing cholesterol levels.
The researchers recruited 15 young men and placed them on either a diet high in cheese, milk, or a control diet (no dairy products aside from butter).
Then, they analyzed the participants’ urine and fecal samples. They discovered that those who were on a high-cheese diet had higher levels of butyrate in their fecal samples. Butyrate is a fatty acid that some studies have shown reduces cholesterol and increases metabolism in mice.
This new finding supports a 2011 study, also by researchers at the University of Copenhagen, that compared levels of LDL cholesterol (unhealthy cholesterol) in people who consumed cheese versus butter.
The study found that people who ate cheese had lower levels of LDL cholesterol compared to those who ate butter. Eating large amounts of cheese also did not increase people’s cholesterol levels. Despite the high levels of saturated fat in cheese, it did not have a noticeable effect on cholesterol levels.
This latest study confirms that the way our gut bacteria metabolizes cheese keeps cholesterol from accumulating in our bodies.
That may be why the French can eat so much cheese and still stay clear of heart disease.