Turning Pizza Into a Health Food

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Is really a dieting disaster? I must admit I love pizza — many years ago I even invested in a pizza parlor, just for the free slices. I always use the same excuse as I bite into my first piping hot slice — “Pizza is a .” After all, it does contain the four major food groups (finally, the food pyramid comes in handy!). You know — the cheese comes from the dairy group; the crust comes from the bread and grains group; the pepperoni comes from the meat group; and the tomato comes from the fruits and vegetables group. Sounds healthy to me.

Pizza’s calorically humble beginning was as a garnished flat bread sold by street vendors in 18th century Naples. Then, in 1889, Naples’ most famous pizza chef, Raffaele Esposito, created a pie for Queen Margherita topped with tomato, basil and cheese to resemble the Italian flag. But it wasn’t until 1905 that the pizza craze really began — when the first American pizza parlor opened its doors in New York City. Today, we eat close to 3 billion pizza pies per year — which is certainly not helping our country’s weight problem.

But pizza is not the problem; it’s the way we consume it. “With all the different toppings available, and the ‘don’t stop ’till you’re stuffed’ approach to it, pizza can really hinder a weight loss program,” says New York City nutritionist Carey Clifford, MS, RD. “In fact, the average person eats 2 or more slices, or roughly 9 ounces of pizza, in one sitting. That’s about 540 calories and 8 grams of fat — and that’s before the toppings,” which can be an additional 50 to 150 calories and 5 to 15 grams of fat.

Wondering how to keep your pizza healthy without adding to your waistline?

  • GO CHEESE-LESS: When you’re ordering your pizza, one of the easiest ways to save on calories and fat is simply to go cheese-less (or maybe half the cheese — you can hardly taste the difference). Also, you can order a pizza with some healthy toppings like grilled chicken or vegetables, and sprinkle your cheese-less pizza with some Parmesan for extra flavor.
  • DON’T STUFF IT: If you can’t imagine a pizza without cheese, at least steer yourself away from extra cheese, deep dish, and stuffed crust pizzas — all of which pack on calories and fat. For example, 2 slices of Pizza Hut’s Stuffed Crust Pizza Supreme contain 820 calories and a whopping 40 grams of fat — that’s approximately two thirds of the daily fat allowance!
  • VEG OUT: Ask for plenty of veggies on top — like broccoli, spinach, tomatoes, zucchini, mushrooms, or even artichoke hearts. All these selections are low in calories and high in fiber and nutrients — which means you feel fuller with less calories. Watch out for the extra cheese that many pizzerias pile on when you order vegetable toppings, and make sure the vegetables aren’t drenched in oil or butter.
  • DON’T BE A MEATHEAD: Choose grilled chicken (not breaded or fried!) instead of meatballs, pepperoni, or sausage, all of which are loaded with fat. Shrimp can also make an excellent, low-fat pizza topping.
  • WATCH YOUR SIDES: It’s not only the pizza that you have to look out for. Most pizzerias serve garlic bread, bread sticks, Buffalo wings, mozzarella sticks and more — all of which are high in calories and fat. For example, Domino’s serves ‘Cinna Sticks with Icing,’ which have 122 calories and 6 grams of fat per stick, plus an additional 30 calories per serving of the icing. With 8 sticks per order, you might as well help yourself to an entire pizza!
  • IT’S GROSS, BUT IT CUTS THE GREASE: This might be seen as a bit unsanitary or poor manners, but you can use a napkin to blot off extra oil from your slice of pizza (I actually had a girlfriend in college that did this). Each tablespoon of oil contains 14 grams of fat and 120 calories, so any savings on oil will translate into big savings in your total calories and fat for the day.
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