The Pizza Effect

Health Writer

We've banned trans fat, discussed soda tax, tried to ban supersized sweet drinks, and tried to address sodium and saturated fat levels in processed foods and chain restaurants. We then bashed grains, identified gluten as the devil in disguise (really, it's not), so what's left?   Let's bash the pizza!

All kidding aside, pizza is a problem, a very big problem when considering the current obesity crisis among kids and teens.   When I visited Italy, the pizza I ate was an entirely different beast compared to the American version.   It had a paper thin crust, a robust flavored but light brushing of tomato sauce, and a gentle but amazingly delectable layer of cheese.   Our version is quite a different species of food.   The thicker the crust, the better, with cariations of pretzel and cheese-filled crust.   American pizzas also have a heaping layer of tomato sauce loaded with sodium and sugar. Toppings include several different cheeses, pepperoni, anchovies, chicken, but rarely, vegetables.  So it's no wonder that the calorie counts, sugar (from sauces and pizza dough), saturated fat, and sodium levels are at astronomical levels.   Decide to buy frozen pizza, and you may still get a whopping dose of trans fat.

A new study from University of Illinois at Chicago suggests that pizza is uniquely adding calories, sodium, and fat to kids diets, especially to teens' diets.   In fact, pizza is the second-highest source of energy in teen diets.   According to the study, on any given day, about 20 percent of youths consume pizza as a meal choice.   There is now a call to action to limit pizza consumption, and to "redo" the current recipe model.   It's actually no surprise that the University of Illinois at Chicago was the center that chose to do this study.   Chicago is considered a well-known mecca for pizza.

In the study, researchers reviewed dietary recall data, sourced from kids aged 2 to 19, between the years 2003 to 2010, using NHANES.   Pizza consumption among kids between 2 and 11 actually dropped by 25 percent during those years.   Among teens, calories from pizza consumption dropped a bit, but overall, pizza consumption actually increased.

Compared to non-pizza days, it was noted that on days kids ate pizza, an additional 84 calories, 3 grams of fat, and 134 milligrams of sodium were consumed. On days that** teens** ate pizza, and additional 230 calories, 5 grams of fat, and almost 500 milligrams of sodium were consumed.   Most worrisome was that on the days' pizza was consumed, neither kids nor teens adjusted their eating habits to compensate for the extra calories, fat, and sodium.   They did not eat less to offset the pizza effect.

When consumed as a snack, kids added an additional 202 calories and teens an extra 365 calories per day.   Researchers added that though pizza consumption at dinnertime fell between 2003 and 2010, consumption at lunch and sourcing from school cafeteria menus, increased.  Pizza also had a significant impact on kids and teens' recommended daily values for overall fat and sodium consumption, when it was the meal of choice. One expert said that the results suggest pizza impact was enough to consider it a serious and important contributor to the obesity epidemic.

The study's authors recommend that because of the prevalence of pizza and its clear impact on diet, as well as health implications, its consumption should be addressed during nutritional counseling to parents, kids and teens.   What do I think? Pizza is not a food meant as a regular meal, it is a treat food.   But, pizza can be modified so that it's healthier:

  • Make it yourself and consider using whole grain pita or tortillas as the crust
  • Use or order whole grain crust
  • Order thin crust
  • Use real tomato sauce that has few added ingredients
  • Add vegetables and healthy proteins like edamame (soy beans), legumes, grilled chicken pieces, or grilled shrimp
  • Go light on the cheese and use part skim mozzarella

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