Nutritionists have identified pizza as a major contributor to obesity among young children and adolescents, and caution parents to be extremely careful considering the prevalence of the food stuff. One of the world’s favorite snack is very rich in saturated fat, sodium and calories and, in the US, one in five children eat pizza on any given day. Fast food pizza is considerably more rich in calories than cafeteria pizza.

Mind your pizza

Kids might love pizza, but it sure isn't healthy when served consistently. Nutritionists believe pizza and sugary drinks are the prime enemies in the fight against obesity, particularly in children. Image: Papa John

Kids might love pizza, but it sure isn’t healthy when served consistently. Nutritionists believe pizza and sugary drinks are the prime enemies in the fight against obesity, particularly in children. Image: Papa John

Lisa M. Powell, PhD, professor, health policy and administration at the Institute for Health Research and Policy at University of Illinois in Chicago, and colleagues examined data over the course of four years (2003-2004 through 2009-2010) from children 2-11 and “non-pregnant” adolescents 12-19 who were part of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). Participants were asked to fill out 2 non-consecutive 24-hour dietary recalls, with day 1 interviews conducted by trained dietary interviewers in an examination center and the second interview conducted by telephone 3 to 10 days later.  Children 6-11 had proxy-assisted interviews and children younger than 6 had proxy respondents. In total,  6,384 observations were recorded for children and 5775 observations were recorded for adolescents.

“It’s a very common and convenient food, so improving the nutritional content of pizza, in addition to reducing the amount of pizza eaten, could help lessen its negative nutritional impact,” Powel said.

The survey found that more than a fifth of both children and adolescents (20% and 23%, respectively) consumed pizza on any given day in 2009-2010. The kids who ate pizza during the study period , be them primary school students or teens,  increased in their intake of saturated fat by 3 g and 5 g and sodium by 134 mg and 484 mg, respectively. Also, pizza from a fast-food restaurant was associated with a 323 kcal increase in total daily energy intake for adolescents (P<0.05) compared to pizza from the school cafeteria. The increased sodium intake is especially worrisome considering  1 out of 20 kids are affected with high blood pressure.

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“These results highlight the idea of drive-by or mindless eating’s role on increasing energy intake and the importance of a dietitian’s discussion with patients and families about planning healthy snacks ahead of time,” said  S. Skylar Griggs, MS, RD, LDN, clinical nutrition specialist for the preventative cardiology division at Children’s Hospital Boston.

The authors do acknowledge that there are several limitations to the study, including underreporting of self-reported 24-hour dietary recall data, as well as significant heterogeneity in the serving size of pizza and the nutrition content of different brands. They suggest these limitations are addressed in follow-up studies that “might want to look at brand specific and perhaps maybe call out some of the worst offenders so that we can improve awareness,” the authors write in the paper published in the journal  Pediatrics.

Dr. William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University, said that lowering our kids’ intake of pizza “should become another goal in our efforts to reduce obesity in U.S. youth.”