Sometimes, nothing hits the spot quite like a pizza. And we’re with you. When it comes to an easy, tasty, affordable and versatile meal, pizza gets high marks.
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But if the pie you love most is topped with cheese an inch thick and covered crust-to-crust with pepperoni and sausage, you might think about ways to sneak some better nutrition into your favorite deep dish.
They say the devil’s in the details. Pile a high-carb crust with high-sodium toppings, and you’re not doing your heart any favors. Choose whole-grains, healthy fats and vitamin-rich toppings, and now we’re talking.
Preventive cardiology dietitians Julia Zumpano, RD, LD, and Fawziah Saleh, RDN, LD, share five helpful strategies for making tasty heart-healthy pizza at home, along with their tips for ordering better-for-you takeout.
“Pizza is a staple in a lot of households,” Zumpano notes. “It can get a bad reputation as an ‘unhealthy’ food, but the great thing is that pizza can be modified easily to be better for your heart and still very satisfying.”
1. Start with a healthy crust
Give your pizza a whole-grain foundation to up your intake of healthy fiber. Keep carbs low by choosing (or making) a thin crust. Read the ingredients on store-bought crusts, and avoid any with hydrogenated oils.
Try these healthy crust options:
- Thin whole-grain crust.
- Spelt flour crust.
- Whole-wheat pita.
- Whole-grain tortilla.
- Cauliflower crust.
2. Be smart about sauce
Heart-healthy sauces can be a good source of monounsaturated fats and vitamins. Avoid cream-based sauces like Alfredo or white sauce, and opt out of barbecue sauce, which is high in added sugar and sodium.
If you’re a traditionalist, opt for a fresh tomato sauce or choose a no-salt-added canned tomato sauce. These choices are high in fiber, vitamins C and K, potassium and manganese.
A light layer of olive oil is a heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Adding some crushed garlic can bring the flavor up a notch and give you a boost with its antioxidant-like properties that help keep your blood vessels flexible to manage blood pressure and prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
Green up your pizza with pesto, which is full of heart-healthy monounsaturated fats, too. Pesto is a blend of basil, garlic, pine nuts, parmesan cheese, pepper and olive oil. Try it and you may find yourself saying that pesto is the besto!
Mix up the heart-healthy ingredients for a yummy sofrito sauce. Lightly sauté onions and garlic in olive oil and add fresh chopped tomatoes or pesto.
3. Get cheesy (in moderation)
All cheese contains saturated fat and sodium, so tread lightly. Whenever possible, select natural cheeses (such as feta, fresh mozzarella or ricotta) or cheeses low in fat and sodium.
Try these cheeses to amp up the calcium and vitamin D:
- Low-fat shredded cheese.
- Thin slices of part-skim mozzarella.
- Fresh mozzarella.
Alternatively, consider trying cheese-less pizza. You could try dairy-free cheese, or no cheese at all, and top it with nutritional yeast.
4. Pile on the veggies
This is where it gets really fun! Veggies and fruits will contribute more nutrients than any other ingredients for your pizza, and they’ll liven up the flavors and add some color to your pie.
- Bell peppers (chock full of vitamins C, B1, B2, B6 and folate).
- Onions (good for fiber and vitamin C).
- Mushrooms (adds B vitamins and vitamin D).
- Tomatoes (get a dose of fiber, vitamins A, C and K, potassium and manganese).
- Olives (for vitamin E and a helping of healthy fat).
- Leafy greens like spinach, arugula or kale (boost your intake of vitamins A, K and C, potassium, fiber and calcium).
- Pineapple (perhaps one of the more controversial toppings out there, and not for pizza purists, but a good source of vitamin C and manganese for those who are up for adding a sweet note to their pizza).
5. Pick lean proteins
Of course, a veggie-packed pizza can fill up your belly with vitamin-rich foods. But if you’re looking for some protein, choose wisely. Processed meats like pepperoni, sausage and ham are high in sodium, saturated fats and nitrates.
“The No. 1 best way to boost the nutritional value of your pizza is by cutting out processed meats, which are high in calories and unhealthy fats,” Zumpano says.
Try these proteins instead:
- Turkey breast.
Tips for healthy take-out pizza
If delivery is on the menu tonight, Zumpano and Saleh suggest these tips to boost the nutritional value of your take-out pizza:
- Order thin crust or whole-grain crust.
- Go heavy on the veggies.
- Ask for light cheese. A good rule of thumb is to ask for half the normal amount.
- Consider vegan pizza (no cheese, no meat) and a side of nutritional yeast to sprinkle on top, if you’d like.
“Most pizza shops offer a variety of choices for crusts and toppings that can help keep your pizza healthy and still delicious,” Saleh says. “Don’t be afraid to ask!”