Certain foods and drinks have a bad reputation when it comes to health, weight and digestion — and people feel guilty about consuming them.
I’m talking about cheese, chocolate, red wine, takeaways and biscuits. But are they always as unhealthy as we think?
According to the science, the answer is no — and with some of these foods, there are some genuine gut benefits that can boost your overall health, too.
Say yes to cheese
The next time you pass on the cheese board, think again, because it could be just what your gut microbes fancy.
Any food that requires microbes to produce it is classed as fermented, and that includes cheese.
The cheese-making process involves adding microbes and an animal enzyme (rennet) to milk. The type of microbes used can affect the nature of the cheese — for instance, Propionibacterium shermanii bacteria create the holes in Swiss cheese, and Penicillium fungi, the veins of blue cheese. And the longer the cheese is aged (especially if made in small batches), the more microbes it usually contains — and fewer additives — than factory-made brands.
Certain foods and drinks have a bad reputation when it comes to health, weight and digestion — and people feel guilty about consuming them. I’m talking about cheese, chocolate, red wine, takeaways and biscuits. But are they always as unhealthy as we think?
This is because manufacturers tend to speed up the fermentation process by adding more enzymes — but this means less time for the microbes to work on turning the sugar, fats and proteins in the milk into chemicals such as GABA, which has been linked with boosting mood and lowering blood pressure.
Some of the bacteria from cheese, particularly if made with raw milk such as Parmigiano Reggiano, actually colonise our guts.
A study in the journal Nature in 2019 showed that eating 45g of this every day for a week led to a notable rise in Bifidobacteria, which have antioxidant benefits.
These benefits are often overlooked because of the saturated fat and salt content in cheese and the risk for cardiovascular health this might pose.
But in fact, the science suggests otherwise. A review of 13 studies published last year by the University of Denmark found that cheese, unlike full-fat milk, was protective against heart disease.
Another study in 2018 compared the impact of eating full-fat Irish cheddar with butter combined with protein powder and a calcium supplement (to emulate nutrients etc in the cheese) — after six weeks, the cheese-eaters had significantly lower cholesterol levels.
Cheese is obviously also a great source of calcium, for strong bones and teeth, but also needed for our heart, muscles and nerves to function properly (it’s particularly important in women during and after the menopause to help prevent osteoporosis).
I eat a little cheese most days — around 30g (about the size of a matchbox), often grated over plant-based bolognese or in a vegetable-packed sandwich (see recipe, right). My advice is to go for quality over quantity and buy locally if you can.
Maximise the health benefits by trying a variety of different aged cheeses, all with their own unique profiles of microbes and microbe-produced chemicals — so one day that might be Parmigiano Reggiano grated into soup, another day, Stilton on a wholegrain cracker with a slice of tomato, or Emmental chopped into a salad.
Some of the bacteria from cheese, particularly if made with raw milk such as Parmigiano Reggiano, actually colonise our guts. A study in the journal Nature in 2019 showed that eating 45g of this every day for a week led to a notable rise in Bifidobacteria, which have antioxidant benefits
Raise a glass to red wine
If you enjoy a small glass of red wine with a meal, the good news is that it’s a fantastic source of polyphenols — plant chemicals with powerful antioxidant properties. Put simply, this means they help mop up damage to your cells caused by ageing, the environment and your lifestyle. Polyphenols are anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial and even have heart-protective and cancer-preventive properties, according to a 2016 study in the journal Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
Other research has suggested this explains the ‘French paradox’ — the relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease in a nation known for wine drinking and, yes, cheese eating.
I like to think of polyphenols as a fertiliser for our gut bacteria, helping them grow in number and diversity. Variety is key, so mix up the grape varieties you drink.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should drink more. Or start drinking if you don’t at the moment.
Short term, having more than a glass or two a night cancels out any anti-inflammatory benefits of the polyphenols.
Instead it can cause temporary leaky gut — this means your gut becomes more permeable, allowing toxins in.
But you can get the goodness of polyphenols from alcohol-free wines, lagers and porters, or by eating berries and grapes and their juices — blueberries are a particularly rich source.
Sweet news about chocolate
I love chocolate. And I have a finely tuned radar for any evidence that it’s good for me. And there’s plenty.
As with red wine, it’s mainly down to the abundance of polyphenols, packed into the cocoa beans. So it follows that the darker the chocolate (and the more cocoa it contains), the greater the guilt-free benefits.
One of my favourite studies, published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2016, found that the polyphenols in dark chocolate reduced the appearance of wrinkles. Dark chocolate (the research typically looks at chocolate with 85 per cent cocoa solids) is also linked to improved mood and cognitive function.
So enjoy a square or two a day or the odd mug of cocoa — and use cocoa (or raw cacao) in smoothies or baking to increase your plant-food diversity.
There’s a world of difference between a pad Thai, loaded with vegetables and seafood, and a Domino’s pizza. Similarly with biscuits, a shop-bought triple chocolate chip cookie and a homemade oat-based cookie are miles apart on the health spectrum.
With takeaways, it’s simple: aim to match the size of your dish with a similar amount of plants — that way your gut microbes are still getting their fill of plant fibres.
My rule of thumb is to supplement a takeaway with a cup of cooked veggies, two cups of salad veg, or a cup of legumes.
For instance, order a side salad to add into your burger or top your pizza; cook some greens as a side for your fish and chips; or swap the white rice with your curry for a tin of butter beans.
As for biscuits, I’d recommend making your own fibre-loaded, additive-free cookies once a month in bulk (and store them in the fridge). They’re much cheaper, too — look out for the recipe coming soon.
Until then, if you really need a sweet snack, try a small handful of dried fruit (dried mango or dates are my current go-tos, just check they have no added sugar), or homemade popcorn (which counts as a wholegrain) sprinkled with cinnamon or cacao.
Try this: Feta and butternut squash open sandwich
A moreish combination and perfect with a glass of red.
- 2 slices of thick, seeded bread
- 250g butternut squash, cut into 1cm cubes
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled
- 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp dried oregano
- 35g feta cheese
- 4 tbsp thick, Greek yoghurt
- 20g rocket or salad leaves
- 1 tsp balsamic vinegar
- 60g roasted red peppers
- Sprinkle of mixed seeds
Preheat the oven to 180c and line a baking tray with foil. Add the squash and garlic, drizzle with olive oil and dried herbs, and roast for 20 to 25 minutes, or until soft and golden.
Pulse the garlic, feta and yoghurt in a food processor a few times until combined (spreadable but with some texture).
Spread a layer of the feta mix onto the bread (toast if you like), top with rocket, balsamic vinegar, a large spoonful of roasted squash, roasted red peppers and mixed seeds.
Did you know?
We have billions of bacteria living in our mouths that act like bodyguards, fighting off ‘bad’ microbes and stopping them entering our guts.
I‘ve been taking 100mg doxycycline daily for acne for three years. How bad is this for my gut health? (I’ve also been having kefir and sauerkraut.)
Topical antibiotics are often used as a first-line treatment for persistent acne. If that doesn’t help, oral antibiotics such as doxycycline are often prescribed — but this is usually only short term, for three to four months, to avoid antibiotic resistance as well as upsetting the balance of the gut microbes.
With this in mind, I’d first check with your doctor whether you do still need to be on oral doxycycline or whether topical antibiotics may suffice.
As you suggest, the antibiotic can affect the ‘beneficial’ gut bacteria, specifically reducing the diversity of Bifidobacteria, a group that has anti-inflammatory effects.
As with all medications, it’s about weighing up your personal risk versus the benefits.
If you do need to stay on the medication, as well as fermented foods, it is important to prioritise plant foods, with something from each of the following every day — fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and herbs and spices, which act as a fertiliser for your gut microbes.
Spending time outside, which exposes you to new microbes, is also worthwhile — whether that’s gardening or going on regular walks.