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Pizza can get such an unfair rap. It’s almost always used as an example of unhealthy indulging or culinary laziness. Just think of all the times you’ve heard or said the sentence, “I was too exhausted to cook so I just ordered a pizza.”
One thing’s for sure: Americans love their pizza. On any given day, 12.5 percent of people eat a slice of ‘za, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (Among boys aged 12 to 19, that percentage climbs to 26 percent!).
But it seems we tend to have a complicated relationship with pizza—simultaneously loving it but associating it with guilt and indulgence. So what’s the deal? Can eating pizza actually fit in a healthy lifestyle?
“Pizza is a food that can have up to four food groups in it,” says Toby Amidor, MS, RD, author of Smart Meal Prep for Beginners. “It’s just a matter of how you serve it and what you complement it with.”
Mmkay, here’s the first roadblock: There’s no such thing as a “typical” slice of this cheesy pie.
The nutritional values of pizza slices vary widely based on the thickness of the crust, the toppings, the amount of cheese, and the size of the slice. And then there are the more innovative variations like crust stuffed with more cheese or even hot dogs (yep).
Take a look at how much these pizza slices can vary, and pay careful attention to portion sizes:
Even among cheese-only pizzas, it’s tough to compare due to all the different slice sizes. Still, the obvious takeaway: Crust thickness has a big impact on calorie content.
Many pizzerias tend to be stingy on the toppings. (Two pepperonis on this slice? Thanks a lot… ) So how much do these oft-sparse toppings really make a difference? Take a look at these slices from Pizza Hut, the top-grossing pizza chain in the United States. These calorie counts are for a large pizza with “original pan” crust, cut into eight slices:
Obviously, veggies will save on calories and provide fiber and phytonutrients (but you knew that already). Can’t quit the meat? “Be sure to complement your slice with a green salad, dressing on the side,” says Amidor. You know: #balance.
First of all, there are some benefits to this savory pie: “The good things about pizza is that it offers calcium from cheese and disease-fighting lycopene from tomatoes,” says Jennifer Fitzgibbon, MS, RDN, CSO, CDN, a registered oncology dietitian at Stony Brook Cancer Center.
While pizza can contain wholesome ingredients, pizza meats do tend to be heavily processed, which means consuming a lot of saturated fat and sodium. We’re talking about pepperoni, sausage, Canadian bacon—all those salty, spicy goodies. These processed meats are fine on occasion, but eating them regularly can have negative effects on your health and may even increase the risk of colorectal cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
Check out the differences in sodium and saturated fat among these pizzas with thin crust from Dominos (one slice is one-eighth of the pizza):
To be fair, it’s not just pepperoni that can rack up the sodium counts. “Even ‘healthy’ pizzas deliver a significant amount of sodium from tomato sauce and cheese,” says Fitzgibbon. “If you are watching your salt intake, you should eat with caution.” (Here are the health effects of a high-salt diet.)
There’s another unspoken topping on your pizza that you technically didn’t request: grease. Many pizzas, especially the meaty and cheesy ones, come with a slick pool of oil on top.
If you’re in the camp that likes to blot off the excess grease with a napkin, your efforts have not been in vain: “You would skim off around 40 calories per teaspoon of the oil blotted off,” says Amidor.
The short answer: Nearly any food can fit in a healthy diet when it’s done mindfully. “For me, ‘healthy’ is defined as eating a variety of foods, and that includes pizza,” says Mindu Lu MS, CN, and owner of Sunrise Nutrition. “I would encourage people to practice giving themselves permission to eat foods that they find enjoyable and satisfying—and to not beat themselves up over it.”
Balancing satisfaction and mindfulness can help make a healthy diet more sustainable. Want that pizza? Enjoy it, and see what tweaks you can make to your pizza to make it a little healthier without ruining the pleasure for you.
Where you get your pizza can also have an impact. “Pizza eaten as a snack or from fast-food restaurants had the greatest negative impact on calorie intake,” says Fitzgibbon. If you eat your pizza leisurely, as though it is part of a sit-down dinner, you will be more likely to eat mindfully, slowly, and feel full on fewer calories. Here are more health benefits of eating slowly.
DIY pizza may sound like a day-long chore, but it doesn’t have to be. “A healthier version would be making it at home using healthier ingredients, such as whole-wheat English muffins, park-skim mozzarella cheese, and tomato sauce without added salt,” says Fitzgibbon. Whole-wheat pita can also make a quick and easy pizza crust. “And don’t forget to top it with lots of vegetables!”
And if you want a sausage pizza with a thicker crust? Just be mindful of portions and consider the meal as a whole. “Eating a few slices as a meal can rack up the calories rather quickly,” says Amidor, “but if you complement it with the right foods, you can have a nicely balanced meal.”