An analysis published on Monday by the journal Pediatrics found that on days when kids eat pizza they tend to take in more calories, fat and sodium. It also found that on any given day, about 20 percent of kids eat pizza. According to the study’s authors, pizza is the second-highest source of calories for children after desserts such as cakes and cookies.
“This is not saying don’t eat pizza,” said study co-author Lisa Powell, director of the Illinois Prevention Research Center and professor of health policy and administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “It’s a nice opportunity for us to make some small changes because it’s such a prevalent item in children’s diets. Hopefully we can make healthy pizza the norm.”
While the number of calories children got from pizza decreased around 25 percent between 2003 and 2010, a healthy pizza diet is still far from the norm and the researchers concluded that pizza “consumption should be curbed and its nutrient content improved.”
For now, on days when teens eat pizza, they consume an average of 230 extra calories, and children consume 84 extra calories on average. On these days, pizza composes 22 percent of children’s calories and 26 percent of teens’ calories. When eaten as a snack and not a meal, teens ate an additional 365 calories compared with days they snacked on other things, and children ate an extra 202 calories.
These additional calorie intakes are in-line with what happens when kids eat fast food.
The authors of the study recommend that physicians and pediatricians discuss pizza consumption with parents during nutritional discussions. They believe that focusing on specific foods rather than overall nutrients my be more effective dietary counseling.
“These observations emphasize that pizza, like sugary drinks, may be a significant contributor to excess caloric intake and obesity, and should become a target for counseling for the prevention and treatment of obesity in pediatric practice,” they wrote in the study.
Increasing awareness of the health and dietary impacts of food has caused large pizza chains like Domino’s and Pizza Hut to introduce lower fat, lower sodium, and lower calorie options. But they are reluctant to sacrifice taste in any way.
“We constantly look for ways to make our products ‘better’ without sacrificing taste,” said Domino’s Pizza company spokesman Tim McIntyre.
One alternative to better keep track of ingredients is to make your own pizza, according to Alexis Tindall, a clinical dietitian with the Center for Healthy Weight & Nutrition at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Doing this allows for the selection of healthier toppings, less cheese, and lower-sodium sauce. This switch will not come easy as part of pizza’s popularity is its pervasiveness; it is often served at school, at parties or other gatherings, or when it’s just the cheapest and easiest option available.
Congress, for its part, has played its familiar role of catering to lobbying pressures. In 2011, Congress blocked rules proposed by the U.S. Agriculture Department that would have changed how schools get credit for serving vegetables and made it so that tomato paste on pizza wouldn’t have automatically counted as a vegetable serving.
“While it is unfortunate that some in Congress chose to bow to special interests, U.S.D.A. remains committed to practical, science-based standards for school meals that improve the health of our children,” the department said in the statement at the time.