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Heart Health

22 September 2019

This is why cheese might be good for your blood vessels

Do you love cheese as a guilty snack? According to research, cheese may actually be great for your heart health.

If cheese is your weakness, you might be happy with the latest research from Penn State University. Antioxidants that naturally occur in cheese may help protect your blood vessels from damage from high levels of salt in your diet, a news release reported.

Researchers found in a randomised cross-over study that when adults consume too much sodium through their diet, their blood vessels may become damaged, which may lead to cardiovascular issues.

But when these same adults ate at least four servings of cheese in conjunction with their high sodium diet, they didn’t experience the same level of blood vessel damage expected from such a salty diet.

These findings may help people balance food that taste good with minimising the risks that come from eating too much salt, said Billie Alba from Penn State University, who led the study.

"While there's a big push to reduce dietary sodium, for a lot of people it's difficult," Alba said. "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."

Why we need salt – but not too much

Sodium is a vital mineral for the human body to help maintain its fluid levels. But too much dietary sodium can be associated with cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 5g per day; however, it is estimated that South Africans use 8.5g.

And while we tend to think that we should simply reduce the amount of table salt we add to our meals, it’s not that simple – sodium lurks in many foods that may not be obviously “salty” – processed products such as cereal, ready-made soups, even some breads.

But according to Prof Lacy Alexander, another researcher on the study, previous research has shown a connection between dairy products (yes, even cheeses with a higher sodium level) and improved heart health.

What the study entailed

The researchers recruited 11 adults without salt-sensitive blood pressure for the study. They each followed four separate 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.

At the end of each week-long diet, the participants returned to the lab for testing. The researchers inserted tiny fibres under the participants' skin and applied a small amount of the drug acetylcholine, a compound that signals blood vessels to relax.

This could help the researchers determine how each study subject’s blood vessels performed after the diets. The subjects’ blood pressure and urine were also monitored.

After a week, it was seen that the blood vessels on the high sodium no cheese diet were not responding well to the acetylcholine, unlike those on the high sodium high cheese diet.

"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 said. "But when they consumed the same amount of salt, and ate cheese as a source of that salt, those effects were completely avoided."

While it is not yet sure if the effect is because of a specific nutrient in the cheese, it was suggested that antioxidants in cheese may be a factor.  Alba stated that it is important that these effects be tested in larger studies to see how dairy may possibly preserve vascular health.

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