Pick a Healthier Pizza

Pizza originally hails from Italy, but it is an absolute American favorite. Each second, 350 slices of pizza are eaten, resulting in a $30 billion industry. For most Americans, it’s tradition: birthday parties include cake, ice cream, and pizza; guys’ night out consists of beer and pizza; and football games aren’t the same without wings and pizza. With all this pizza consumption – 23 pounds of pizza per person a year – it’s a good idea to pick a healthier pie. Read on to find the best and worst picks for restaurant pizza, takeout/delivery, and store-bought, plus tips on how to make any choice healthier.

Restaurant Pizza

Ordering pizza at a restaurant leaves room for lots of variability: some pies are meant to be eaten by one person, others by the whole family; some are deep-dish and loaded with cheese and meat, while others more closely emulate the thin, delicate pizzas from Italy.

Worst: Uno Chicago Grill Chicago Classic Deep Dish
This pizza, meant for one person, contains an astounding 2,310 calories, 165 grams of fat (54 grams saturated), and 120 carbs – all of which are refined.  That’s more calories than most people should eat in a day, and more saturated fat a person should eat in almost three days. This pizza goes south for a couple reasons: first, it’s deep dish (Uno Chicago Grill is apparently “the birthplace of deep dish pizza”), meaning a good portion of the calories come from the thick dough – made entirely of quick-burning, blood sugar-raising refined flour. It also provides a strong foundation for heavy, hearty toppings, including meats and plenty of cheese. Traditionally, lots of oil is used in and on a deep-dish crust, creating a fried effect – and even more calories. The meats and cheeses provide most of the rest of the calories, as well as the saturated fat and sodium.

Best: Margherita Pizza
If you can hit up an artisanal-style or Neapolitan-style pizza place, do it. As opposed to all-American eateries that serve everything from burgers to nachos to pizza, these restaurants serve light pizzas with simple – i.e., not hypercaloric – toppings. Instead of using the crust as a thick base to carry as many toppings as possible, the crust is another ingredient that adds to the flavor of sauce and toppings. The Margherita pizza, with a tangy tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sea salt and basil, is probably the most iconic version, and comes in at a relatively light 600 calories. For a balanced dinner, combine it with a salad, or put the salad on your pizza: ask for arugula on top. And for a protein hit, order a pizza napoletana (also sometimes called pizza romano) – it also has anchovies that provide healthy omega-3s.

Tips: If you can, order your pizza thin-crust. You’ll save around 200 calories – possibly more – just on the dough, and likely hundreds more in the toppings that don’t fit on a thin-crust.

If you’re going out with friends, share a few pizzas so you can try a variety of flavors (and be satisfied) – but also share a few salads and lean protein-based appetizers. If everyone wants their own pizza, order a salad and your own pizza – but save half to take home.

Make substitutions. Ask for light cheese: most restaurants pile it on too heavily anyway. You’ll also be making more room for healthier toppings, like vegetables and protein. Also ask for a whole wheat crust; many restaurants offer it now.

Avoid red meats like sausage, bacon, and pepperoni – especially if all three are included. They add too much fat and sodium to offset the benefit of their protein. Pick chicken, anchovies, sardines, or mussels instead, which add a hit of lean protein with minimal saturated fat; seafood options also provide heart-healthy omega-3s. One exception to the red meat rule: prosciutto, paper-thin, dry-cured ham from Italy, is an indulgent topping, but it adds rich, quality flavor for about 70 calories and five grams of fat per ounce.

Delivery/Takeout

Most big-chain delivery and takeout pizzas are relatively similar: a puffy, white-flour crust, mozzarella cheese (sometimes with cheddar, provolone, feta, or American cheeses), and a basic tomato sauce. A regular cheese slice will pack between 220 and 340 calories.

Worst: Pizza Hut Stuffed Crust Meat Lover’s Pizza
With 480 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat, this is America’s unhealthiest slice. It has five different types of meat – pepperoni, ham, beef, bacon, and sausage – which also contribute to the 1,380 mg of sodium it contains. Pizza Hut’s dough also contains partially hydrogenated soybean oil – meaning that all of their pizzas contain trans fats. In addition to the high-calorie, high-fat pizzas, Pizza Hut tempts its customers with gut-busting sides like Stuffed Pizza Rollers (220 calories each), Fried Cheese Sticks (380 calories), and Apple Pie (330 calories).

Best: Papa John’s Thin Crust Garden Fresh
All of the vegetables piled on this pizza – onions, peppers, mushrooms, olives, and tomatoes – displace some of the cheese, making this a lighter option. One slice contains 220 calories, just 3 grams of saturated fat, and 9 grams of fiber. While their meaty slices do carry a pretty hefty amount of calories, their ingredients are markedly better (apparently the slogan “better ingredients, better pizza” rings true): there are no trans fats or MSG in any products; no animal fats in the dough (some doughs use lard); no fillers in the meat; and no preservatives used on the fresh vegetables. Papa John’s also has a “Create Your Own” option online, allowing you to customize your order with plenty of fresh vegetables, light or no cheese, and grilled chicken or anchovies.

Tips: Ordering delivery pizza offers even more customizability than in a restaurant – most delivery and takeout joints allow you to make as many substitutions as you like, or, in some cases, a build your own pizza. The same healthy substitutions from above apply here: less cheese, more vegetables and lean protein, and a whole wheat crust.

Avoid white pizzas: these pizzas come without tomato sauce; instead, the crust is covered with either a heavy dousing of olive oil, a cream- or cheese-based sauce, or pesto. This, of course, increases the calorie count of your pizza drastically – but it also denies you the nutrients found in tomato sauce, like lycopene, as well as fresh herbs.

Skip the desserts. Often, coupons for delivery and takeout joints offer a free dessert. But these desserts – Domino’s CinnaStix, Pizza Hut’s Cinnamon Sticks, Papa John’s CinnaPie – can pack as many calories as your pizza. Domino’s CinnaStix contains 1,210 calories, 51 grams of fat, and 79 grams of sugar – and you’re probably not sticking to the recommended two-piece serving size.

Store-Bought/Frozen

Store-bought and frozen pizzas offer as much diversity as pizza restaurants. They range the gamut from deep-dish, meat-loaded, and cheese-stuffed to vegetable-packed thin-crust and from organic to preservative-packed meats.

Worst: Totino’s Party Pizza with Hamburger
Although it’s not listed as a personal pizza, most people would finish this pizza in one sitting. One serving (half of the small pizza) contains 370 calories and 20 grams of fat, which isn’t terrible – except for the fact that 4.5 of those fat grams are trans fats. Totino’s Pizza has some of the unhealthiest and most unnatural ingredients in the frozen food aisle, including “mozzarella cheese substitute” (containing partially hydrogenated soybean oil), titanium dioxide, an artificial coloring agent also used in paint, plastics, and sunblock, and caramel color, an additive that has been linked to lung, liver, and thyroid cancer in mice.

Best: Naked Pizza Superbiotic
With store-bought and frozen pizzas, ingredients are just as important as calorie and fat counts. Many have reasonable nutritional stats but also contain lower quality ingredients, preservatives, and additives. This pizza, which comes from a chain that also makes three other frozen flavors, wins in both areas. Half of the pie contains 350 calories, 10 grams of fat, 9 grams of fiber, and 18 grams of protein, making it a dinner or lunch with lasting hunger-quashing power. Its crust packs ten different whole grains as well as probiotics that help improve digestion, and its toppings include artichokes, roasted bell peppers, red onions, spinach, mushrooms, garlic, basil, and cilantro. Noticeably absent are preservatives and additives that are on most other frozen pizzas.

Tips: Scan the nutrition label. Per serving, look for pizzas with less than 400 calories, 4 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 600 mg of sodium, and at least 3 grams of fiber, and 14 grams of protein. As for the ingredients, the fewer, the better. More ingredients generally mean that the foods have been processed and refined; manufacturers then add in preservatives, chemicals, and sugar to make up for the taste. Bonus points for organic ingredients, which generally offer more vitamins and minerals.

Avoid pizzas with the words “deep-dish,” “pan,” and “supreme,” which generally contain more calories and fat than regular or thin-crust pizzas. “Supreme” will always mean “covered with sodium- and fat-laden processed meats.”

If you don’t find the flavor combination you want, or you’re bored with a regular cheese pizza, don’t settle: you can doctor it up at home. Buy a basic margherita pizza and add herbs, olives, capers, vegetables, nuts, beans, chicken, anchovies, or arugula. Try artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, chicken, and pine nuts or arugula and a few slices of prosciutto. For a whole meal, consider pizza insalata by building an entire salad on top of your pizza.

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