Pizza is a much-loved Italian favourite for many. However, it often hits the addictive ‘bliss point’ which is the optimal point of various taste sensations — think comforting carbs, sweet tomato sauce and creamy mozzarella cheese — that compel you to go back for more, more, more! Pizza is commonly labelled as unhealthy as it can be high in refined carbohydrates and generally high in fat and salt.
Let’s be honest though, we all know that if we deprive ourselves of the things we love we just want more, more, more…. and we all love pizza! Pizza can be a healthy option, if you avoid the greasy, refined-flour and processed meat versions and making this food healthier can be easier than you think!
Here are our top 7 tips to make your family favourite that little bit healthier.
1. DIY and think about your base
One of the best ways to make your pizza healthier is to make it at home; make-at-home pizza allows you to truly control the quality and quantity of the ingredients that you use.
And think about your base. Use wholemeal flour when making your own dough – it’s higher in fibre and precious nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. White flour is refined, which means our bodies rapidly turn this into sugar. This means we crave more and more, and then we get hungry again soon after eating. Insulin also spikes which often leads to excessive weight gain and potentially insulin resistance in the long-term. You can even try making a flourless base. Options include using ingredients such as cauliflower, Portobello mushrooms, quinoa and chickpeas. Try my flourless cauliflower pizza base here (link to recipe). Give it a go and enjoy something different!
If you are in rush use a wholemeal pitta as a base. It’s fast but effective and kids just love it. If you must order, opt for thin crust to save on calories and carbs.
2. It doesn’t have to be tomato
Spread your base with a good quality lycopene-rich tomato sauce. Did you know that tomato sauce has more of this powerful antioxidant than fresh tomatoes? And it’s super simple to make with just 4 ingredients: a bottle of good quality tomato passata, a splash of extra virgin olive oil, a couple of pinches of dried oregano and a clove of grated garlic is all you need to make a delicious pizza sauce.
An easy alternative to a tomato sauce is pesto, which is flavoursome and rich in satiating fats. Pesto can be made from different herbs, but basil pesto and sundried tomato pesto work best on pizza. Olive tapenades pack a powerful flavour punch and are also a perfect condiment for pizza. Olives are very high in vitamin E and other powerful antioxidants.
3. Top with at least 3 different vegetables
Load up your pizza with veggies for extra fibre, vitamins and minerals. A pizza is an amazing base for 1 or 2 cups of a variety of veggies. Add a rainbow of colours. Plants contain different pigments, or phytonutrients, which give them their colour. Different coloured plants contain higher levels of specific nutrients so eating a variety of colours, or eating a rainbow, means eating a wide variety of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and micronutrients for broader health benefits.
Throw on some extra tomatoes, onions, different coloured peppers, olives, artichokes, mushrooms, courgettes, aubergines and basil. Add some dark-green leafy vegetables that are rich in energy producing magnesium. Choose vegetables in season. You may not think of pizza as a seasonal dish but it most certainly should be! Asparagus and artichokes in Spring, aubergines, peppers and rocket in Summer, diced butternut squash and spinach in Autumn, and friarielli (broccoletti) and radicchio in Winter; pizza is a great base for the best flavours and fresh produce.
4. Load up on good quality protein and fats and avoid certain toppings
Fatty sausages, pepperoni, bacon and extra cheese are packed with unhealthy saturated fats and tons of salt, so they are best avoided. Instead, think good quality lean protein that is also a great source of flavour such as Parma ham, bresaola, chicken, prawns and salmon. Up your brain and heart with healthy omega-3s by adding anchovies, mackerel or sardines. Protein and fat are so important as they balance your blood glucose ensuring you feel satisfied for longer and far less likely to snack. There are some great plant based meat and fish alternatives now too.
When choosing your cheese opt for organic and go for buffalo mozzarella or a tangy goat cheese as they are generally easier to digest than cow’s milk cheeses.
If you are focusing on being plant based, opt for tofu, mushrooms, beans and chickpeas and sprinkle a tablespoon of nooch – a vegan’s nickname for nutritional yeast - for extra flavour and a punch of B vitamins, needed for energy and immunity.
Making a pizza base with lentil flour is a great way to have a protein packed vegan pizza. Lentils are a fantastic source of plant-based proteins and are also naturally rich in iron. 1 cup of lentil flour contains about 28g of protein and makes a pizza dough for 2 people: protein target hit!
5. Do it with the kids
Getting the kids involved in the kitchen is a wonderful way to develop their skills and help them to become more interested in the food they eat. Making pizza together is a great opportunity to educate them about the importance of eating a variety of vegetables and can turn picky eaters into more adventurous ones. The essential ingredient is FUN so why not transform pizza making into a rainbow pizza contest? Who’s rainbow pizza is best?
All you need is a base; if you don’t have time to make your own and are short of time, use wholemeal pittas and let them choose their pizza sauce: tomato sauce, pesto or olive tapenade. Pre-chop all the ingredients and put them into little bowls, arranging them by colour. Make sure you have a good range of vegetables and protein sources, covering all the colours of the rainbow. Then unleash the kids loose on creating their own rainbow pizza masterpiece.
Here some ideas for the colours:
Red: red cherry tomatoes, red peppers, Parma Ham, red radicchio.
Orange: roasted butternut squash, orange peppers, roasted sweet potatoes.
Yellow: yellow tomatoes, yellow peppers.
Green: capers, basil, green olives, roasted courgettes, rocket, broccoli, friarielli (Italian baby broccoli), spinach.
Purple: grilled aubergine cubes, purple onions, black olives, purple cabbage.
Pink: ham, prawns, salmon.
White: buffalo mozzarella, grated parmesan cheese, cubed feta cheese.
Beige: mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes.
Once the kids have finished their creations, drizzle a little extra virgin olive oil and place in the oven.
Get the score cards out and have fun together tasting and scoring each other’s pizza. Tip: give extra points for the number of veggies used to encourage the kids to expand their vegetable repertoire.
6. Practice portion control and make it a ‘Mediterranean Night’ rather than a ‘Pizza Night’
Cut your slices smaller and share your pizza with family and friends. Aim to have ½ a pizza each rather than a whole pizza. Think of pizza as a small main and always accompany it with a salad such as Bean & Tomato or a Greek Salad. It is important that you always pair your pizza with something fibrous and filling like green leaves or grilled vegetables as fibre activates the stretch receptors in your stomach making you feel fuller.
Remember the Mediterranean way of eating that is all about connection, so share your food amongst all of you. This way everyone can pick and taste all the different beautiful flavours and textures on the table without overeating too many empty calories.
7. Slow down and enjoy!
Remember foods that hit the bliss point override the brain's natural 'stop' signal.
Be mindful of the pace at which you eat and really savour the flavour of the food. Instead of shovelling in your food in a matter of minutes, slow down and enjoy every mouthful of your pizza. If you eat slowly, then you’ll realize when you are full, without overdoing it.
Pizza is actually a healthy meal choice when a little thought is put into its preparation. Practicing portion control, choosing your ingredients wisely, adding healthy toppings and preparing it at home are some options for health-conscious pizza lovers.
Following a whole-foods Mediterranean style diet is best for overall health, but it’s okay to enjoy your favourite food now and then — even if it’s not the most nutritious choice. The key rule is “in moderation”.