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Pizza:

Junk Food or Health Food?

By Gary F. Zeolla

Pizza—the premier American food, ideal for any type of social get-together and for a quick meal. But how healthy is pizza? Some place pizza in the same category as junk foods like potato chips and ice cream, while others claim pizza is healthy and point out that it contains all four of the old "Four Food Groups" (grains, fruits & vegetables, dairy, meats).

So which is it? Is pizza a junk food or a health food? This article will answer this question by first looking at each of the main components of pizza.

The Crust

This first main component of pizza is the crust. This is the "grain" part of its inclusion in the Four Food Groups. Those old guidelines recommended consuming four servings of "whole grain or enriched grains" each day.

However, there is a big difference between whole grains and enriched grains. I discuss this in depth in my God-given Foods Eating Plan book. I write, "Whole grains contain fiber, vitamins, and minerals that are lost in the refining process. The refining process also eliminates antioxidants and other beneficial elements in whole grains" (p.47). Only a few of these many beneficial factors are restored in the "enriching" process.

In addition, it was mentioned previously [in my book] about there being a syncretistic effect of the various elements naturally found in whole grains. There is no way to duplicate this "whole grain synergy" through the "enrichment" process. We simply cannot duplicate all of the beneficial elements that God put into our food and the way God designed them to work together. And the more we tamper with our food, the less it resembles the original, God-given, beneficial food (p.48).

If the pizza were made with a whole-wheat crust, then this problem could be avoided. Unfortunately, whole wheat pizza can be difficult to find. You would probably need to go to a "health food store" to find a frozen whole wheat pizza, and it would be almost impossible to find whole wheat pizza in a pizzeria.

I remember there was one pizzeria at Penn State Main Campus when I attended there that sold whole wheat pizza. So more often than not, when I wanted pizza, I tried to eat there and ordered their whole wheat pizza. But I have not seen such an option at any pizzeria I've ordered from or ate at since. But I have made my own whole wheat pizza at times.

A homemade pizza has the added plus of tasting much better than most any frozen or delivery pizza, but it does take much more effort than just ordering a pizza or placing a frozen pizza in the oven. But you can make the first step easier by purchasing a pre-made whole wheat pizza crust from a health food store, but it probably won't taste quite as good as the from scratch version.

It should be noted that pizza crust is not pure grain, whether whole or enriched. Pizza crust always contains some kind of oil. But exactly what kind of oil is used can make a big difference in how healthy the pizza crust is.

I discuss in my Eating Plan book that the healthiest kind of oil is extra virgin olive oil. If you are making a homemade pizza, this is definitely the oil of choice. However, extra virgin olive oil is much more expensive than refined vegetables oils like soy, corn, or sunflower. For that reason, most commercially prepared pizzas probably use such oils. I discuss why such oils are less than healthy in my book. Even worse would be if the pizza were made from some kind of hydrogenated oil. Again, the many problems with such oils are discussed in my book.

The ingredients list on a frozen pizza will list what kind of oil is used, but to get extra virgin olive oil would probably required getting the pizza or pizza crust from a health food store. When ordering a pizza, you really have no way of knowing what kind of oil is being used.

The Sauce

If pizza has any claim to being a health food, this is it. The tomatoes used to make the sauce are definitely a healthy food, even more so because they are cooked to make the sauce. The tomato sauce is where the "fruits & vegetables" component of pizza comes from, and they are a very healthy such food:

As I write in my Eating Plan book:
Tomatoes are a good source vitamin C (27% [of the RDA]) and vitamin K. … tomatoes are technically a fruit not a vegetable. But whatever their classification, tomatoes are a very healthy food. They not only are a good source of vitamins A and C, but they also are the best food source of lycopene. This antioxidant has been shown to be of value in protecting against a variety of cancers (pp. 24,29).

I then cite several scientific studies showing this benefit of tomatoes. The strongest evidence is their value is in reducing the risk of prostate cancer.

Another important point is the lycopene of tomatoes is better absorbed from cooked rather than raw tomatoes, as I document on page 30 of my book. This is why pizza sauce is an especially valuable source of lycopene in the American diet.

But it should also be noted that pizza sauce often also contains some kind of oil. But again, the type of oil used will determine if this is a healthy addition or not. But the oil in pizza does improve the absorption of the lycopene.

The Cheese

This is the "dairy" component of pizza. But cheese has both good and not so good aspects to it:

As I discuss in my Eating Plan book:
… most cheeses are good sources of protein and calcium. An ounce of cheddar cheese, for example, provides 7.0 grams of protein and 20% of the DV for calcium.

But most cheese is also high in fat and saturated fat. That ounce of cheddar cheese contains 9.4 grams of fat, with 6.0 grams of that being saturated. However, recent research suggests cheese does not appear to be a serious problem when it comes to blood cholesterol levels or cancer risk (p.139).

I then cite a study showing that cheese fat does not increase total and LDL cholesterol near as much as butter fat and another showing it does not increase the risk of colon cancer. But I then write, "These results are interesting. But given the sparse Biblical support for cheese, and the fact that cheese contains almost as much saturated fat as protein, it would still be best to keep cheese consumption limited, to about an ounce a day" (p. 139).

However, you could easily consume more than an ounce of cheese when eating pizza. The problem is, there really is no way of knowing how much cheese is actually added to a pizza, and the amount can vary widely from brand to brand and pizzeria to pizzeria, and even with pizzas from the same pizza shop. Some pizzerias (usually larger chains) will weigh out the cheese on each pizza, but others (usually smaller "mom and pop" type stores) will just throw a handful on the pizza, so the amount can vary.

Of course, you can always cut down on the amount of cheese by ordering the pizza with "half the cheese"—but you will probably get a weird look or response from the person taking the order. And of course, if you make the pizza yourself you can limit the amount of cheese on it.

The Toppings

This is where the "meat' portion of pizza comes from, at least if a meat topping is added to the pizza. However, the type of meat generally added to pizza is anything but the "God-given meats" I recommend in my book. In fact, it is doubtful the drafters of the old Four Food Groups had such meats in mind.

Pepperoni and sausage are the most common meat toppings. These are both highly process meats, containing excessive amounts of saturated fat, salt, and possibly nitrates. None of this is at all healthy. And it goes without saying, the more pepperoni or sausage added, the less healthy the pizza would be. But I would say even a small amount of such toppings would tip the scales of pizza into the "junk food' category.

Hamburger and ham are two additional common but problematic meat toppings. If the hamburger is very lean ground beef, then it would be okay, but that is unlikely. Most likely, it is inexpensive, high fat ground beef, while ham is high in saturated fat and salt. The healthiest type of meat topping would be cut-up lean beef of some sort, but you'd probably have to add that yourself.

Anchovies would also fit in the "meat' category and would be another healthy option. Anchovies are very high in omega 3 essential fatty acids. I discuss the many benefits of high omega 3 fish in my book (pp. 121-125). But one down side to anchovies is they are also very high in salt.

A great option would be some kind of vegetable topping. Mushrooms, green or red peppers, and onions are the most common veggie toppings. Green and red peppers are a great source of various vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Onions are an ‘allium' vegetable, the benefits of which I discuss in my book (p.29). I do not discuss mushrooms in my book as they are not a vegetable, but rather fungi. They contain little in the way of nutrients, but at least they are low in calories. But watch out as they could be high in sodium.

Just about any other vegetable could be cut up and added to a pizza. Zucchini, broccoli, cauliflower and similar veggies all work well. Spreading cooked spinach over the pizza would also work. Piling on such vegetables would tip the scales of pizza into the "health food": category.

Fruit toppings are another healthy option, with the most popular being olives and pineapple. Olives, like olive oil, are a very healthy food due to their healthy fat content. Pineapples are not a real powerhouse when it comes to nutrient content, but they do contain small amounts of several nutrients.

So basically, the toppings could very well determine if a particular pizza should be classified as a junk food or as a health food. Pile on the processed and fatty meat toppings, and it is a junk food. Use lean meat or anchovies or pile on the veggies or fruit, and it could be considered to be a health food.

The crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings are the four main ingredients in pizza. But there are other things to consider in deciding on how healthy pizza is.

Food Allergies and Sensitivities

Wheat and dairy are two of the most common food allergies, while celiac disease (the inability to digest the gluten in wheat) is also somewhat common, but wheat and dairy are of course two of the main components of pizza.. Making matters worse is that many people do not know they are allergic to these foods or have celiac disease, so eating large amounts of pizza could very well contribute to health problems.

A similar potential problem is artificial ingredients. Try reading the ingredients list on a box of frozen pizza. You will need a degree in chemistry to get through it. It is truly mindboggling how many chemicals are added to most such pizzas. You could avoid such artificial ingredients by purchasing an "all natural" or organic frozen pizza from a health food store. But unfortunately, such pizzas are usually more expensive than traditional grocery store frozen pizzas.

There is no way of knowing exactly how many such ingredients are added to a pizzeria pizza, unless the company's Web site lists the ingredients of its pizzas. Of course, you can avoid all such ingredients with a homemade pizza.

Artificial in ingredients by definition are not natural and in no way healthy. Moreover, many people, like myself, are also sensitive to such ingredients and thus avoiding them is vital.

Similarly, pesticides are also unnatural and some people like myself are sensitive to them. This is where the best aspects of pizza, the sauce and vegetable toppings, can be problematic. I categorize in my Eating Plan book fruits and vegetables as to how likely they are to contain pesticide contamination (p.196). Peppers and spinach are in the "most contaminated" category, while mushrooms and tomatoes are in the "moderately contaminated" category, but onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and pineapples are all in the ""least contaminated" category.

Again, you could avoid all pesticide contamination by getting an organic frozen pizza from a health food store or by making your own pizza with all organic ingredients.

Salt (Sodium) Content

This is another very real potential problem with pizza. Frozen and pizzeria pizzas are notoriously high in sodium content. The exact amount will of course vary from brand to brand and pizzeria to pizzeria, but they are all almost certainly high in salt content. Possessed meat, anchovies, and mushrooms toppings would further add to the sodium content.

Even natural or organic frozen pizzas will be high in salt content. Homemade pizza would not totally avoid this problem either as cheese is by nature high in salt. And if you use canned tomatoes or pizza sauce to make it with, that could be high in salt as well. But at least you can avoid any further sodium by not added salt to the recipe.

For those who are salt-sensitive and have high blood pressure, the high salt content of pizza can be a very real concern. But by avoiding high salt toppings, you can at least keep from making the problem even worse.

Glycemic Response

One last issue to consider is the glycemic response of pizza. I discuss the glycemic index in my Eating Plan book (Chapter 17). But simply, the glycemic response of a food refers to how much it raises blood sugar levels. This is especially an issue for diabetics and those like myself who have reactive hypoglycemia. But all people would do well to avoid high glycemic foods.

Generally speaking the higher a food spikes the blood sugar, the quicker and greater the blood sugar will ""crash" later. This rapid fluctuation of blood sugar is where potential problems come in.

Processed white flour foods tend to have a high glycemic index. But pizza has a somewhat strange response.

Pizza keeps glucose up longer than any other food. Researchers compared a pizza meal with a control meal that included high GI foods & found the initial glucose increase was similar. But, for the pizza meal, glucose was still high even after 4-5 hours (http://optimalhealth.cia.com.au/gi17.html).

For someone like me with hypoglycemia, this means pizza would not be problematic. But it could be a problem for diabetics if the blood sugar is spiked too much initially.

Calories

This is the biggest wild card of all in regards to pizza. How many calories does a slice of pizza contain? That question is almost impossible to answer. The amount of calories is greatly influenced by several factors.

First and most obviously is the size of the slice of pizza. This can vary greatly based on the size of the whole pizza and how many slices it was cut into. Second would be if the pizza has a thin or thick crust, with the latter being much higher in calories than the former. Third is the amount of cheese on the pizza. Fourth is the type of topping. Meat toppings will greatly add to the caloric content of pizza, while the caloric addition from vegetable toppings would be negligible.

The most common practice is for people to eat two slices of pizza. But again, that doesn't tell you that much about how much food is actually consumed. A "trick" some use if given a large slice of pizza is to cut it lengthwise down the middle into two slices. That somehow makes it "seem" like more food.

But of course, many do not stop at two slices. It just seems very easy it is to overeat pizza. This is especially the case if it is being eaten in a social gathering, with lots of talking and laughter or while watching a football game or other sporting event. In such situations, you must make a conscious effort to pay attention to how much you are eating to avoid overeating.

However, this ease of eating large amounts of pizza is why pizza is a favored food for powerlifters to consume after weigh-ins. I mention about eating pizza after weigh-ins in the chapter on cutting weight in my powerlifting book. But in this case it is especially important to avoid meat toppings as you need carbs not fat after weigh-ins. It would also be best to order the pizza with half the cheese.

Conclusion

If you make a homemade pizza using a whole wheat crust, extra virgin olive oil, a limited amount of cheese, no extra salt, and top it with lean meat, anchovies, vegetable, and/ or fruit toppings, then such a pizza would definitely be classified as a "health food." Other relatively healthy options are pizzeria or better all natural or organic frozen pizzas, either plain or with only vegetable toppings.

However, if you consume a pizzeria or especially a frozen pizza piled high with processed and fatty meat toppings, then the high saturated fat, salt, artificial ingredients, and caloric content place it into the junk food category.


God-given Foods Eating Plan:
For Lifelong Health,
Optimization of Hormones,
Improved Athletic Performance
Paperback and eBook by Gary F. Zeolla


Pizza: Junk Food or Health Food? Copyright 2009 by Gary F. Zeolla.

Disclaimers: The material presented in this article is intended for educational purposes only. The author is not offering medical or legal advice. Accuracy of information is attempted but not guaranteed. Before undertaking any diet, exercise, or health improvement program, one should consult your doctor. The author is in no way responsible or liable for any bodily harm, physical, mental, or emotional, that results from following any of the advice in this article.

The above article was posted on this site August 2, 2009.
It originally appeared in the free email newsletter FitTips for One and All.

Nutrition
Nutrition: Specific Foods and Food Ingredients

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