Pizza, pizza, pizza! You love it, but is it a good idea to eat it every day? We spoke to a dietitian to find out.
To the question “Can you eat pizza every day?” is a simple, unambiguous answer: Of course you can, it’s your own body! Change the opening of the question from “can you” to “should you,” and the answer becomes more nuanced.
We love our pizza: in 2015, The Washington Post reported that Americans ate 100 acres of pizza every day. That’s 3 billion pies: the equivalent of 46 slices (or 23 pounds!) of pizza per person, per year. Great news for mom-and-pop joints and pizza chains. What about our health?
To find out just how often we should (or shouldn’t) indulge in our favorite food, I spoke with Michelle Rauch, Registered Dietitian at The Actors Fund Home, an assisted-living facility in Englewood, New Jersey, population 28,353.
“Pizza can be high in sodium, fat, and calories,” Rauch said, “depending on where you are getting it from and other factors including, but not limited to, toppings and stuffed crusts.”
“Though occasionally enjoying a slice of fast-food or frozen pizza most likely won’t impact your weight, eating these items regularly can lead to weight gain—and may increase your risk of chronic health conditions.”
“Like all foods, more processed types of pizza are often higher in unhealthy ingredients than those made from scratch,” she added. “Frozen pizza is highly processed, and is often loaded with high amounts of calories, sodium, saturated fat, and preservatives.”
Rauch, who can be found on LinkedIn, also runs Dietitians with a Mission (follow on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram), a goodwill project that she helped organize with a fellow Registered Dietitian in support of frontline healthcare workers during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic.
What Makes Pizza Unhealthy?
We established that pizza can contain a large amount of sodium, saturated fat, and refined carbohydrates, all of which should be consumed in moderation as part of a healthy and balanced diet. But have you ever wondered why that is? We explain below.
A Lot of Salt Means a Lot of Sodium
Salt, with the chemical name sodium chloride and the formula NaCl, consists of 40% sodium and 60% chloride. When it comes to your overall health, high sodium intake has been proven to be problematic.
Salt brings out the aromas and flavors in our food, making it more appetizing. But consuming too much of it can lead to the buildup of sodium in our bodies, which, in turn, can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
In pizza, salt can come from the dough (for example, Neapolitan-style pizza uses 2-3 g of salt per 1 kg of flour), the tomato sauce (virtually every tomato sauce recipe calls for the addition of salt to taste), as well as the toppings (cheese and processed meat are generally high in sodium).
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the joint dietary recommendations of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)—recommends consuming less than 2,300 mg of sodium per day. For people with high blood pressure, the recommended daily sodium intake is lowered to 1,500 mg per day.
Pizza is delicious, we know that. But before you grab hold of that last slice, take a look at the nutritional values on the box and think twice, especially if you need to watch your sodium intake.
There’s a High Amount of Saturated Fat In Pizza
The fats in your food can be classified into one of two categories: saturated fats, the bad kind, and unsaturated fats, the good kind.
Eating too much saturated fat can increase the levels of bad cholesterol in your blood, which then increases the risk of heart disease and stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA), a non-profit that funds cardiovascular research.
For the same reasons, AHA recommends that no more than 5-6% of your calories come from saturated fat. If you consume 2,000 calories per day, this would equate to a daily limit of 13 g of saturated fat. Which, as you are about to find out, can easily be reached—or topped—by eating two fast-food or frozen pizza slices.
The main sources of saturated fat are meat and dairy. You will find them in abundance on a pizza, in the form of toppings or stuffing for the crust. (Getting asked “Would you like double cheese or meat with that?” at the counter isn’t really helping.)
The Dough Is Made Out of Refined Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates, from a nutritional standpoint, can be refined or complex. Refined carbs give you a short burst of energy and make you slouchy soon after; complex carbs take time for your body to digest and act as a gradual source of energy throughout the day.
When you eat foods that contain refined carbs, you gain more weight. Your body digests them very quickly, and it ends up having more energy than it can use up at once. This energy has to go somewhere, so it gets converted into triglycerides and stored as fat reserves “for a rainy day.”
Remember: Drive-thrus, corner stores, and hypermarkets didn’t exist when Mother Nature designed our bodies. Food was scarce, and fat reserves were essential for survival in cold weather or on days when we couldn’t scrounge up food.
Refined carbs are found in more processed foods, such as white flour or white sugar. Complex carbs come from less processed foods, such as whole-wheat flour or brown sugar. Tell them apart by observing the color and the texture; white and powdery foods are processed, whereas earthy and grainy foods are not.
White flour is fine and tender because it has been ground so much. It makes for airy and fluffy baked goods, including pizza, but much of its nutrients have been lost in the milling process. This is the main reason why, in healthier pizza recipes, whole-wheat flour is mixed with—or substituted for—white flour to add fibers, proteins, and vitamins to the dough.
The Acceptable Macronutrient Distribution Range, or AMDR, for carbohydrates is between 45% and 65%. “Since everyone’s bodies are different,” says Rauch, “there is no one-size-fits-all. On average, people should attempt to get about half of the daily calories from carbohydrates, choosing those that are minimally processed.”
When it comes to your well-being, this means that whole-wheat pizza is a better choice than all-purpose-flour pizza, just like whole-grain bread is better than white bread and brown rice or quinoa are better than white rice.
Putting These Recommendations Into Perspective
What should all of these recommendations tell you? To help you put things into perspective, below is a list of the nutritional values of some of the most popular fast-food pizzas in the nation:
- 1 slice of 12” Pizza Hut Medium Cheese Only Pan Pizza (serving size is 1/8th of the pie) has 240 calories, 10 grams of fat (of which 4.5 grams saturated fat), and 530 milligrams of sodium (source);
- 1 slice of 12” Pizza Hut Medium Pepperoni Pan Pizza (serving size is 1/8th of the pie) has 250 calories, 12 grams of fat (of which 4.5 grams saturated fat), and 590 milligrams of sodium (source same as above);
- 1 slice of 12” Domino’s Medium Cheese Only Pan Pizza (serving size is 1/8th of the pie) has 295 calories, 15 grams of fat (of which 8 grams saturated fat), and 455 milligrams of sodium (source);
- 1 slice of 12” Domino’s Medium Pepperoni and Cheese Pan Pizza (serving size is 1/8th of the pie) has 305 calories, 16.5 grams of fat (of which 8.5 grams saturated fat), and 530 milligrams of sodium (source same as above);
- 1 slice of Tombstone 5 Cheese Pizza (serving size is 1/4th of the pie) has 370 calories, 18 grams of fat (of which 9 grams saturated fat), and 740 milligrams of sodium (source).
- 1 slice of Digiorno Three Meat Pizza (serving size is 1/6th of the pie) has 390 calories, 21 grams of fat (of which 7 grams saturated fat), and 610 milligrams of sodium (source).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should stop eating fast-food pizza or frozen pizza altogether. But it does tell you that you need to limit the number of pieces you eat from an order-in pie if you want to follow the experts’ dietary recommendations.
How to Make Your Pizza “Healthier”
For starters, make your own pizza from scratch.
Cooking is a fun, hands-on, down-to-earth activity that each of us should do more often. It saves money, gives you more control over the food you eat, and helps you unwind and relax by doing something “real” instead of staring at a computer screen all day.
Rauch concurred, and recommended that you use whole-wheat flour. “Choose skim mozzarella,” she added, “and watch the portion that goes on the pie. Load it up with vegetables, and avoid topping it with processed meat.”
Or make Pizza alla Marinara, a pie topped with tomato sauce and garlic, drizzled generously with extra virgin olive oil and spiced up with freshly cracked black pepper, that Italian sailors used to eat near the docks of Naples in the 18th century.
If you don’t have time or simply don’t want to make your own pizza, don’t forget to order a salad (go easy on the dressing), get the thin crust, and share the pie with someone else. Pairing the pizza with a healthy side or two helps you get full without the excess salt, sugar, fats, and carbs.