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Hankering for a Healthy(-er) Pizza

Bertucci's olive oil, which graces almost every menu itemPeople often ask me how to order a healthy pizza at a restaurant. I guess in theory it's possible: lots of vegetable toppings, a sprinkling of cheese, tomato sauce, a drizzle of olive oil, and a thin crust (preferably whole wheat)—a filling meal with a variety of nutrients. As I glanced at a Bertucci's flier for their summer menu, I saw a picture of what looked like my "healthy pizza." The Giardino Pizza with roasted red and yellow peppers, grape tomatoes, and mozzarella on a whole wheat pizza crust. A hefty coupon sealed the deal and off we went. Bertucci's has a distinctive scent that pervades the dining areas and all of their entrees; it's a fresh warm aroma that probably comes from the baking bread, olive oil and lots of garlic. Although I love Bertucci's pizzas, they tend to be slicked with oil as the toppings are often sauteed in oil and sometimes finished with an extra drizzle on the surface. So I asked for less cheese and no olive oil drizzle. The waiter mentioned that the pizza was covered with pesto, which wasn't listed in the menu description, but I ok'd it since I didn't want to strip out too much flavor.

The crust was thin but unfortunately burnt black on several edges. It tasted...dry. Not chewy, not pleasantly crackly, just tough and bland. Despite trying to order less grease, the pizza still had pools of oil cratered throughout from the pesto. The vegetables looked colorful but were shiny with more oil. Summer's Giardino PizzaOverall, the pizza tasted like all their others—very very rich but nothing too memorable. I was expecting a summer pizza with a "thin whole wheat crust" to be lighter and somewhat more healthful but I didn't taste this at all. I commend Bertucci's for being one of the few Italian restaurant chains to disclose their nutrition information. It said that the Giardino Pizza has 230 calories and 6 grams fat per slice, or 910 calories and 26 grams fat for an entire individual pizza. I'm skeptical because even a small amount of oil shoots up the fat calories; I'd guess my pizza contained at least double the fat grams. I've noticed that the same menu items taste slightly different at each Bertucci's chain, likely depending on the chef and his/her interpretation of the recipe. I doubt they're measuring exact amounts of oil to cook with and that can throw off the nutritional info.

So, I'm still searching for my "healthy" great-tasting restaurant pizza. Admittedly the best one I've found is from a local Domino's that I customize with less cheese, extra vegetables and no extra oil. It tastes really fresh and doesn't leave me bloated and aching for a nap afterwardsSleeping. If you've found your perfect healthier pizza, please let me know where!


Snub Soda This Summer

Soda has come under fire by national health experts as a major contributor to obesity. A zero-nutrient beverage that offers little but sugar calories (a 12 oz can of Coke Classic contains 140 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar), it is well digested and all too easy to gulp down. Further, many of us choose the larger 20 oz soda bottles which, on a hot steamy day, isn't hard to guzzle down two or three. That's 480-720 calories—about a third of our daily calorie intake! It's no wonder they are a target of public health departments. New York's Governor Paterson proposed a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks that could discourage consumption by 15-20%. A study by the New York City Health Department estimated that this reduction could prevent thousands of cases of adult obesity and Type 2 diabetes, saving residents over $2 billion in related medical expenses.

I'm skeptical that the reduction of a single food product could have such far-reaching effects but obesity is such a complex problem that making small changes like this just might work. In response to this issue in the Boston area, the Boston Public Health Commission is launching its first citywide Soda-Free Summer Challenge. They are asking people and organizations to take a pledge to skip soda for the entire summer...or at least skimp on it if you're a soda diehard. Instead of soda, they suggest non-calorie drinks like water, unsweetened ice tea and seltzer, or low fat milk, which is rich in nutrients.

What about diet sodas and fruit juices? Kathy Cunningham, a dietitian at the Boston Public Health Commission, says “Diet or artificial sweeteners are intended to produce a sweet taste with zero or fewer calories to promote weight loss. However, over time calories displaced by artificial sweeteners may be replaced by other foods due to the sweetener increasing a taste preference for sweet foods rather than naturally low-sugar tasting foods.” In other words, the artificial sweeteners in diet sodas may promote an ongoing sweet tooth that can become an obstacle to weight loss. Cunningham believes that diet drinks are best used as an aid to transition to less sweetened beverages like water, mineral waters, and noncaffeinated teas. Fruit juices offer nutrients but are still high in calories and easy to drink in large quantities, so limit juice to about a cup a day (choose 100% fruit juices as fruit "drinks" contain added sugar). Or add a splash of fruit juice to seltzer water.

Are you up for the challenge? Admittedly I'm a fan of diet soda and flavored waters but agree that many of these products are filled with artificial ingredients, so I'm up for the challenge...at least for this summer. 


Lean Cuisines Not So Lean? 

Click on this image to watch the Today show segment I have to say how continually impressed I am with the media, specifically how they can generate so much hype over nothing. The latest was a Today show investigative report exposing inaccurate nutrition labeling on "diet" frozen meals. The title grabbed me and I was mesmerized by the whole segment. "No WAY!!" I yelled at the TV as the reporter said that one particular frozen entree had 10% more calories and another had an unbelievable 350% more fat than listed. The segment even interviewed one of my former professors, a reputable nutrition scientist. She blamed food mislabeling such as this as a possible cause of why some people can't lose weight.

Alarmed, I did the math on the inflated calories and fat and became upset again: this time at the Today show. The particular entree they announced as the “biggest gut buster of all” was a Weight Watchers Smart Ones chicken dinner that had 11% more calories and 350% more fat than the label's 210 calories and 2 grams of fat; sounds horrific but the calculation comes out to a petty 23 extra calories and 5 extra fat grams (for a total of 7 fat grams)—still considered a low fat option for a dinner entree! The Today show probably realized how boring these numbers would look so they opted to display the more shocking "350% more!" value.

I agree that it's deceptive labeling, but because the original fat content listed was so low, the inaccuracy that it actually contained 7 fat grams is pretty trivial. Well, at least I don't believe it's a major cause of why people can't seem to lose weight. It's more likely that people are feeling so virtuous eating these low fat entrees that they end the meal with a pint of Ben & Jerry's. Of course I can see that if the total original calories and fat listed on an entree were higher, then the 10%-350% increase might be more troubling, but the examples the Today show used were not.

The report noted that some of the entrees tested actually had less fat and calories than listed. The problem seems to be variances in portion sizes during packaging, for which the Food and Drug Administration (who regulates food labeling) allows a 20% inaccuracy. I understand this might be disheartening for some who are very regimented and count every calorie, but there is a bigger picture with weight control and more meaningful tenets than calories in a frozen meal. Like eating more natural plant-based foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and legumes. Eating only until you feel comfortably "unhungry." Exercising regularly. This Today show segment was mildly interesting but didn't reveal anything earth-shattering or even helpful, especially because they stated the inaccuracies were due to differing portion sizes. Therefore it's possible that same Weight Watchers chicken entree but from a different box could have 100% less fat! Ahh, one up for those media writers who've created yet another sensationalized story I'll have to unravel for my outraged patients.