The ketogenic diet, or the keto diet for short, is a high-fat (70 to upwards of 80 percent), moderate-protein, and low-carb diet. A common goal on the plan: to change your body’s biochemistry and, in turn, lead to weight loss.
“Following a ketogenic diet changes your fuel source from one that primarily burns carbohydrates to one that burns fat,” says Olivia Wagner, RDN, a functional dietitian at Liv Nourished in Chicago. In metabolic terms, this process is called ketosis.
One of the perks of a keto diet, followers say, is that cheese is not off-limits. In fact, cheese is basically the perfect keto food: high-fat, moderate-protein, and low-carb. “Cheese can add flavor, variety, and new textures into your meals,” says Wagner, adding that the best varieties for the keto diet are high-quality, grass-fed, and full-fat. (Just remember: Cheese isn’t “unlimited” in a keto diet, as it still contains calories and carbs; it’s also high in saturated fat, which is a less heart-healthy option than unsaturated fats, per the American Heart Association.)
Cheese might not be the first food you think of when it comes to weight loss, and yet some research suggests the food may be beneficial for this purpose. For example, in a study on more than 2,500 men who self-reported their intake of dairy products, a higher consumption of cheese specifically was associated with a lower BMI after a five-year follow-up, per an study published in October 2018 in Nutrients. (That said, cheese is high in calories, and so while it can fit into a weight loss or maintenance diet, it’s best enjoyed in moderation.)
Some studies have also suggested that cheese may benefit certain health outcomes, too. Cheese may be linked to better cognition with age, concluded an observational study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease in February 2021. And an earlier meta-analysis on 29 cohort studies, which involved more than 938,465 people and was published in the April 2017 issue of the European Journal of Epidemiology, found that participants who ate 10 grams (g) of cheese (or about ⅓ of an ounce) per day had a slightly lower risk of cardiovascular disease than those who did not. (However, this conclusion was based on a single study. It also relied on “food frequency questionnaires,” a method that’s validated by science but is error-prone because it relies on the memories of participants. It’s also important to note that in all of this research, the authors write that more research needs to be done to determine a potential mechanism.)
If you find that your results are plateauing while on keto, you may want to take it easy on the cheese, says April Murray, RDN, founder of Orange County Nutrition Coaching in Costa Mesa, California. “Sometimes people lose weight much quicker and feel better when they take out dairy,” she says. If you find you tolerate it okay, there’s no reason to omit it, but if you’re struggling with gastrointestinal side effects or water retention — or if you find that you’re not losing weight despite being in ketosis — it may be time to discuss the role of dairy in your diet with your healthcare team.
If you’ve decided to add cheese to your keto diet menu, you should also know that not all cheeses are created equal. Here’s what you need to know about which cheeses to eat, which to limit, and which to skip altogether.
The 5 Best Types of Cheese to Eat on the Keto Diet
Goat cheese is an excellent choice for someone following the keto diet. It contains zero carbs, making it a great way to hit your macros — 1 ounce (oz) of goat cheese also offers 103 calories, 8 g of fat, 0 carbs, and 6 g of protein, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). In addition, cheese made from goat milk contains less lactose (a naturally occurring sugar in dairy) and proteins that are different from cow’s milk, which makes it easier to digest, says Wagner.
“Cheeses that are high in flavor — like stinky cheeses — give you more bang for your buck when it comes to flavor. They add a lot of complexity for a small amount,” Wagner says. Blue cheese fits the bill: One oz has 100 calories, 0.7 g of carbs, 6 g of protein, and 8 g of fat, per theUSDA, making it a flavorful and low-carb option for snacking or topping your favorite dishes.
This is a keto favorite, thanks to its nutritional profile: Per the USDA, 1 oz contains 84 calories, 8 g of fat, 1 g of carbs, and 2 g of protein. That means it’s a great addition to a meal or snack when you need more fat. Wagner likes Nancy’s brand, which makes a probiotic-rich cream cheese that’s cultured with live bacteria (like yogurt).
Grated Parmesan is perfect for adding a hit of salty, nutty flavor to foods. Per the USDA, 1 tablespoon of this cheese, grated, contains 21 calories, and packs 1.4 g of fat, 0.7 g of carbs, and 1.4 g of protein. Pro tip: Make this cheese your best friend when it comes to salads. “A lot of keto dieters eat Caesar salads [sans croutons], and Parmesan cheese plays a big role in enjoying them,” says Lauren Weiss, PhD, a keto nutritionist in La Jolla, California. (Those croutons can tack on extra carbs to your bowl!) And finding salads you enjoy is important when you’re following a diet where it’s easy to fall short on vegetables.
If you’re craving cheese and on the go, these dehydrated pieces of cheese in a bite-sized shape are a delicious solution. “Clients [who are following the keto diet] miss chips and crackers,” says Dr. Weiss. “You can dip these cheese bites in guacamole for a high-fat snack.” Best of all, you don’t have to worry about refrigeration to get your cheese fix. One brand, Moon Cheese, has an “Oh My Gouda” variety that has 14 g of fat, 1 g of carbs, and 11 g of protein for 170 calories per 1-oz serving. Another, Whisps, offers an Asiago and Pepper Jack flavor with 11 g of fat, 1 g of carbs, and 12 g of protein per 150-calorie serving (about 23 crisps).
The 5 Worst Cheeses for People on the Keto Diet
Canned or Spray Cheese
The USDA’s listed macros for spray cheese — 81 calories, 6 g of fat, 2 g of carbs, and 5 g of protein per oz — could probably fit into your keto diet. The problem: It’s heavily processed cheese that isn’t really, well, cheese. “These contain a lot of stabilizers, fillers, and oils that don’t provide much nutritional benefit. All you’re doing is adding additional gunk that your body doesn’t recognize, and that can lead to inflammation,” says Wagner. Inflammation is tied to many health conditions, including cancers, infectious diseases, and autoimmune disorders, according to past research — so this type of “cheese” is one to skip.
Just like canned or spray cheese, American cheese is often highly processed, and keto nutrition experts urge dieters to pay attention to the quality of their food — not just whether it meets their macro goals. As for those macros, the USDA notes that a slice of American cheese has 65 calories, 5 g of fat, 2 g of carbs, and 3 g of protein. Because many people on keto stick to 20 g of carbs per day, one slice may account for 10 percent of your total carb allotment. Since there are better, less-processed options available, this one’s just not worth it.
Mild Cheddar Cheese
When choosing a cheese to eat on the keto diet, consider that many cheddars are mild tasting, and you may want more than one slice to feel satisfied. Sharp varieties provide a bigger dose of flavor which may make them a better choice. Per the USDA, a ¾-ounce slice of cheddar contains 86 calories, 7 g of fat, 0.4 g of carbs, and 5 g of protein.
In small quantities, full-fat ricotta may be fine on the keto diet. But thanks to its macros, you’re not going to be able to sit down to a big bowl of it. “Ricotta is higher in carbs. While it can be a good option once in a while, you have to watch portions,” says Weiss. Per the USDA, a ½-cup serving of ricotta will contain 204 calories for a whopping 14 g of fat, 9 g of carbs, and 10 g of protein.
Cottage cheese follows the same rule as ricotta: Limit the amount you eat if you’re on a strict keto diet, says Weiss. While cottage cheese is known for its high protein content, it also contains a relatively high amount of carbs and not that much fat, making it a less-than-ideal choice for keto. A ½-cup serving of cottage cheese contains 88 calories, 2.4 g of fat, 4.5 g of carbs, and 11.6 g of protein, per the USDA.