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Say Cheese the Low-Fat Way

As a word, "cheese" always brings a smile for photographers. As a food, it brings lots of flavor to breakfast omelets, luncheon sandwiches, or dinner entrees. It's got plenty of bodybuilding protein and bone-building calcium, as well.

All this would be fine, but for one depressing fact: Cheese tends to be high in fat. Very high. A gourmet cheese such as brie, for example, has about 8 grams of fat per ounce. Ounce for ounce, that's twice as much fat as a sirloin steak.

Still, cheese can fit into a healthy diet. The trick is to enjoy cheese for its flavor and nutrients, but be sensible. There are two ways to make cheese a successful part of your eating habits: Reduce the amount you eat, or eat cheese made with a reduced amount of fat.

Here are some tips on how to be a healthy cheese eater.

Measure

Know how much cheese you're eating. Chances are, it's more than you intended. For most hard cheeses, like cheddar or Swiss, a one-inch cube is approximately one ounce. That means three nibble-sized pieces can have as much fat as a thick hamburger. Portion control and measuring are just a few of the keys to healthy eating. Instead of eating cheese by the chunk, stretch it by combining it with other foods.

Compensate

Diet experts say cheese is one of the toughest foods for people to give up. So don't give it up. The goal is not to eliminate, but to manage your overall fat intake. If you want the cheese, eat it but cut down somewhere else. If you have some delicious cheese on French bread before dinner, then don't have a meat entree.

Savor

Go for the good stuff. If you can't bear life without brie, have a little. Don't gobble it; instead concentrate on every bite. You'll enjoy it more and eat less.

Substitute

Try low-fat cheeses. Low fat is 3 grams or less fat per serving; for most cheese, that's 1 ounce. Cottage cheese is 4 ounces. Low-fat Italian cheeses, such as mozzarella and ricotta, can taste very much like the higher-fat versions. In some cases you'd never know the difference if you didn't read the label.

Experiment

Try adding flavors to jazz up nonfat cottage cheese. Use nonfat ricotta instead of sour cream for a heartier onion dip. Nonfat yogurt can be substituted in recipes to make a new-style "cheese" spread.

Stretch

A little bit can seem like more if a low-fat cream cheese, such as Neufchatel, is whipped. You're adding air not calories.

Read

Labels will tell you the fat content of the cheese you buy. Count the fat grams and apply them to your "fat budget" for the day. "Reduced-fat cheese" has 25 percent less fat than the same full fat cheese. "Fat-free" cheese has less than 0.5 grams of fat per serving. Learn to read and understand labels! Although cheese with less fat usually has less cholesterol, read the label to be sure.

High-taste, low-fat recipes

Here are two recipes that prove that a little cheese can go a long way if you serve inventive meals. The surprise in the first recipe comes from how you can enhance the flavor of a basic cheddar and vary it depending on the vegetables you like.

Cheddar vegetable surprise

3 cups cooked brown rice

1 cup carrots, thin sliced diagonally

1 cup broccoli florets

1 cup coarsely chopped onion

1 cup sliced mushrooms

1 cup coarsely chopped zucchini

1 cup canned tomatoes, coarsely chopped

4 ounces low-fat cheddar cheese, grated

1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

Spread rice in shallow baking dish. Cover with vegetables. Cover with cheese, distributing evenly. Pour soy sauce all over and sprinkle with sesame seeds.

Bake approximately 45 minutes at 350 degrees.

Serves six. Each serving contains approximately 356 calories, 9 g protein, 8 g fat, and 150 mg calcium.

Mediterranean pasta

4 cups thin spaghetti (cook according to package directions)

2 teaspoons olive oil

1 large onion, sliced

1 red bell pepper, cut into strips

2 or 3 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup broccoli florets

1 cup zucchini, sliced or quartered

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

1 cup spinach, shredded

16 cherry tomatoes

8 pieces of sun-dried tomato

12 black olives

Fresh thyme to taste (or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme)

2 ounces feta cheese

Boil 3/4 cup of water. Add sun-dried tomatoes. Let sit. Heat oil in a large skillet and saute vegetables over medium heat, starting with the ones that need to cook the longest--onions, peppers, and garlic--and progressing to the broccoli, zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, and cherry tomatoes. (A low-fat note: If the oil is used up, don't add more; just add a few drops of water.) Add to the skillet the olives, thyme, and the water in which the sun-dried tomatoes were soaking. Chop up the sun-dried tomatoes and add to the skillet. Stir in crumbled feta cheese until a sauce forms. Toss with pasta.

Serves four. Each serving contains approximately 380 calories, 15 g protein, and 11 g fat.