Could cheese be the key to a healthy life?

It seems as though Britain's relationship with milk and dairy seems to have soured in recent years.

One in five Britons claims to have bought or eaten dairy-free alternatives in the past six months, according to market research by Mintel.

And just last month, Public Health England launched its latest Eatwell Guide, recommending cutting the amount of dairy from 15% to just 8% of daily food consumption and choosing low-fat and low-sugar options whenever possible.

Yet, many countries - including France, Australia, the U.S. and Ireland - have introduced three-a-day dairy programmes to encourage people to eat more of it, because of concerns about calcium deficiency. Milk, cheese and yoghurt are a major source of calcium, as well as essential nutrients including protein, iodine, and vitamin B12.

So, should we be eating dairy or ditching it?

One issue with dairy foods is that they contain high levels of saturated fat and - in the case of cheese - salt. This is a key reason why the new Eatwell guidelines have recommended reducing dairy intake. Yet there is growing evidence that saturated fats aren't all created equal.

For instance, a 2014 study published in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology revealed that saturated fats such as those found in many dairy foods reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes.This also fits with what many recent studies have revealed about high consumers of milk and other dairy products.

Cheese is full of saturated fat and salt, so some might question how it could possibly be a healthy choice.

Professor Arne Astrup from the University of Copenhagen, and a global expert in nutrition and obesity research, has concluded that people who eat a lot of dairy, show no difference in their risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes or mortality compared with people who eat small amounts. If anything, there is a small risk reduction - so it could actually be beneficial.

'Cheese is full of saturated fat and salt, so you'd think it would be the worst thing you could eat in terms of raising the risk of cardiovascular disease,' says Professor Astrup. 'But when you look at what happens to people who eat a lot of cheese, you see the complete opposite: it seems to protect against cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.'

A 2014 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that when men were fed a diet rich in milk or cheese, their levels of so-called 'bad' LDL cholesterol were lower than when they ate a low-dairy diet containing similar amounts of saturated fat.

It's thought calcium may bind to fats and interfere with their absorption, meaning more of it is excreted.

Gut bacteria may also be feeding on some of the fermentation products in cheese, producing compounds such as butyrate, which may have additional health benefits, suggests Professor Astrup.

Both diabetes and heart disease are associated with tissue inflammation, and butyrate seems to have anti-inflammatory properties.

This is certainly good news for those who love cheese!