Feta Cheese & Why The Med Diet Includes Full Fat, Not Low Fat, Dairy.

Feta Cheese & Why The Med Diet Includes Full Fat, Not Low Fat, Dairy.

“Choose low-fat dairy” says the Mayo Clinic in their Mediterranean Diet guidelines article. And Mayo Clinic is not the only website that recommends low-fat, not full fat, dairy as part of the Med Diet. Only this advice – it’s BS and yet another misconception of what a Mediterranean Diet really is.

In the Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan article I mentioned that my (Greek) grandparents were not eating chicken sandwiches, a “dish” too common in so-called Med Diet meal plans, and that the diet presented in most meal plans and guidelines you’ll find online is an Americanized version of the true Mediterranean Diet and hardly an authentic one. This means that by following one of those meal plans you’ll likely meet the nutrient breakdown of the Mediterranean Diet, however what you’re gonna be eating will resemble but it won’t be a Mediterranean Diet.

The low-fat dairy guideline presents yet another misconception.

(I actually mentioned the full-fat dairy guideline to my also Greek husband, and we were both laughing out loud at the BS of this recommendation.)

So today I’ll discuss feta cheese, a staple of the Greek Diet, why its original version is the full-fat, not low-fat one, and how this full-fat/low-fat dairy misconception has played out and distorts the true Mediterranean Diet.

Why do all the Med Diet guidelines mention low fat, not full fat, dairy?

I was really scratching my head as I realized this. Website after website recommended low fat dairy as part of the Med Diet, which completely contradicted my own experience as a Greek, born and raised in Crete, the region that beat everybody else in heart health in Ancel Key’s Seven Countries Study (SCS).

This study was made up of the United States, Greece, Japan, Netherlands, Yugoslavia, Italy, and Finland. Keys recognized that more people in the USA suffered from coronary heart disease (CHD) than other countries.

feta cheese

Keys studied the diets and lifestyles of middle-aged men from these countries at that time, and examined their blood serum levels and heart attack rates. He found that people in Greece, Italy, and Japan had lower risks of cardiovascular diseases in comparison to the other countries. As an example, death rates from CHD ranged from 268 per 1000 in East Finland to 25 per 1000 in Crete.

This is the study that connected the dots between consumption of saturated fat, high cholesterol, and increased heart attacks. It’s also the study that made the Mediterranean Diet famous for its heart health benefits.

(Contesting the validity of the Seven Countries Study for showing the saturated fat – cardiovascular disease connection? Check out this white paper to clear this up.)

How do I know that the recommendation for low fat dairy as part of the Med Diet is wrong?

The SCS examined middle-aged men in the 60s and onwards. My (Cretan) grandparents were at that age at that time, so they belonged to that group that Ancel Keys studied in the 1960s and followed for decades later.

At the time, there was absolutely no concept of “low-fat dairy” in Crete. Not only were low fat dairy products NOT AVAILABLE, but people were not obsessed with “low fat” yet.

That doesn’t mean they were drinking all the fat from the milk. They’d usually take out the cream that would develop on top and make cheese or butter out of it.

You see the connection between saturated fat, cholesterol, and cardiovascular disease had not yet being established.

So what type of dairy did people in rural Crete in the 1960s actually consume?

crete mediterranean diet
@Iraklio in Crete, 1960. Image from PATRIS newspaper.

Let me take both sets of my grandparents as examples, as they were both typical examples of people at the time.

One set of grandparents (on my mom’s side) were farmers, which was not unusual for rural Crete. They made their own cheese from the milk their goats produced. This cheese was obviously full fat – no advanced skimming milk techniques were available to people in Crete at the time!

(This is exactly what both sets of my also Cretan husband’s grandparents were doing. They had a goat or two and used them for milk.)

My other set of grandparents (on my dad’s side) did the exact same thing – they produced their own cheese and drank their own milk from their goats.

Note that none of those sets of grandparents were professional goat farmers. It was just common for Cretan households at the time to own a few goats to use for their own consumption. Some people also had a few sheep.

So just like nowadays you’d grow your own tomatoes in your garden, same way people back then owned a goat or two for their own consumption. Their milk consumption was on 235g/day on average (Kromhout et al, 1989.)

While this already demonstrates the BS of the low-fat guideline as part of the Mediterranean Diet, I dag deeper.

Were low-fat dairy products available in stores? No.

So my dad’s parents owned a grocery store. My dad was working there when he was a teenager. I talked to him about what types of milk they were selling at the time.

He confirmed there were no low-fat dairy products. There was no pasteurized milk either, at least not the one that you’ll find in fridges nowadays. There was milk available – the canned one, and yes it was full fat. My mom, who grew up in a different small village in Crete, confirmed this information.

(I actually had a three-way call with both of them and it was funny hearing them bring back memories about products that were available at the time.)

When were low fat dairy products actually introduced in Greece?

My parents both confirmed that there was no low fat milk available in stores until the late 1980s. My mother actually called a chemist friend of hers, who in the 1990s used to work for “Delta,” one of the first and biggest dairy companies in Greece. He also confirmed that Delta didn’t produce any low fat milk till the late 1980s or maybe early 1990s. (In the US, fat grading of milk was promulgated by the USDA in 1977.)

Not surprisingly, this coincides to the time when the low-fat trend was picking up. The link between saturated fat and coronary heart disease had been popularized and demand for low fat was growing.

So why is low fat, not full fat, dairy part of the Med Diet recommendations?

This is exactly what I’ve been asking myself since I realized the misrepresentation of the diet. Here’s the conclusion I came down to:

  • The Med Diet, at least in Crete at the time when the SCS took place, was low in saturated fat. Only about 7-8% of total calories came from saturated fat (A Ferro et al., 2002.)
  • As we all know dairy products include saturated fat. Hence the recommendation for low fat dairy products, right?
  • Only here’s why people’s consumption of saturated fat was low: they ate little meat.

Red meat in particular was an once a month thing. In fact, at least 180 days in a year were vegetarian days.

So while their dairy consumption was a full fat experience, their meat consumption was actually quite low.

Yes Cretans beat people from other regions in terms of cardiovascular events; they did eat full fat dairy; but they ate little meat and their diet, because of their little meat consumption, was a low in saturated fat diet.

So in order to follow a Mediterranean Diet you don’t necessarily need to switch to low fat dairy (unless you want to) – you just need to consume little meat.

Feta cheese is actually a great example of this misconception between full fat and low fat dairy consumption.

True feta cheese is full fat feta cheese.

feta cheese med diet

Feta cheese, a staple of the Greek Diet, is a nice example of the full fat/low fat issue we’re discussing today.

In fact, manufacturers who product low fat feta cheese, are by law not allowed to market their product as “feta” in Greece.

Only the original full fat feta cheese is allowed to be marketed as “feta,” at least in Greece! I find this funny because at the stores you’ll see what looks like feta but it’s only going to say it’s a “low fat” product on the label.

That’s how important “full-fat” is that they legislated it for feta cheese in particular.

So why should you be eating feta cheese?

There is actually no should. If you don’t like it or if you’re a vegan, or just following a dairy free diet, no prob!

But if you either haven’t tried it, or have tried and are wondering about how good it’s for you, then read one!

Feta cheese is usually produced from either sheep’s milk or a mixture of both sheep’s and goats’ milk. It’s a cheese eaten since ancient Greece times. According to the USDA, a one ounce portion of feta cheese has approximately:

  • 75 calories
  • 4 grams of protein
  • 1 gram of carbohydrate
  • 6 grams of fat (4g saturated)
  • 140 mg of calcium (14% of the recommended daily value of 1000mg!)
  • 260 mg of sodium

Those are just the main nutrients and minerals that much of the population looks for when skimming labels. If you look even further, feta cheese packs a significant punch with high levels Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), phosphorus, and vitamin B12. Not bad at all!

Is full-fat feta cheese good for weight loss?

Speaking in terms of what basic weight loss is, calories in vs. calories out, (full-fat) feta cheese still wins. According to the USDA database for comparison for calories, feta is lower in calories per ounce – at 75 calories – than other popular cheeses:

  • Cheddar Cheese: 115 calories
  • Gouda Cheese: 101 calories
  • Swiss Cheese: 111 calories
  • Provolone Cheese: 98 calories
  • American Cheese: 110 calories
  • Monterey Jack Cheese: 100 calories
  • Brie Cheese: 95 calories

Mozzarella cheese is the only variety I researched that had fewer calories at 72. However, this was for low-moisture part skim mozzarella variety. Traditional whole milk mozzarella actually has 85 calories per ounce.

I’m generally following a Mediterranean Diet, and hence my regular consumption of feta cheese. I had no idea that when you look at calories, feta cheese is actually a diet cheese!

(So low-fat feta cheese is actually even more of a diet cheese!)

Unlike mozarella that has a soft taste, feta cheese is opinionated! A 75-calorie, one ounce portion goes a long way. It packs a punch with flavor, so you can easily stick to a portion or two. Next time you want to try a flavorful, low calorie option, substitute feta cheese in your salad or wrap.

New to feta cheese?

Some people have never tried feta cheese. If you’re one of them – and you have no idea how to enjoy it – start small by sprinkling some on top of your favorite salad. It does’t really matter if you get the full fat or the low fat variety, they’re both equally tasty in my opinion!

(Actually I’d advise that if you love it and want to eat A LOT of it, then you may go for the low fat variety just to cut down on some calories – even though as we covered earlier full fat feta cheese is already a diet cheese.)

Are you hungry for more? Check out my Mediterranean diet plan article for a sample (authentic) meal plan.

Want to learn more about misconceptions about the Mediterranean Diet? Leave a comment below!

Click here to view the sources referenced in this article.