Pizza is a classic comfort food — bread, cheese, sauce, and toppings — what’s not to love? However, while it might taste delicious, pizza isn’t the healthiest meal option in general, and especially not when you’re training for a race.
The bread is high in excess calories, refined carbs, and sodium, which will make you feel lethargic and heavy if eaten prior to working out. Plus, the melted cheese, sauce, and other toppings (like sausage, pepperoni, or buffalo chicken, for example) pile on more calories, grease, and unhealthy fats — particularly saturated fat.
“Pizza can be very high in sodium and saturated fat, so much so that you can actually exceed the daily recommended limits if you eat several slices,” says Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist and the author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook.
And too much sodium is not only bad for your heart health and risk of disease, but it can also lead to bloating, abdominal discomfort, and fatigue — all of which might slow you down and hinder your performance during training sessions. It can even make you dehydrated, and you may not see the physical improvements from training (such as weight loss or greater muscle definition) due to puffiness and water retention.
Plus — let’s be honest — it’s hard to limit yourself to just one or two slices. And if you are in training mode your appetite may increase, where you’ll be more likely to polish off that whole pizza pie simply due to increased hunger levels as your body adapts to burning more calories in the day.
The good news is you can make your own healthier pizza at home by tweaking the crust and toppings. Here are a few tips that dietitians use when enjoying pizza at home. You won’t miss pizza delivery one bit.
How to Perfect the Healthier At-Home Pizza
Use a Low-Carb Crust
“Cauliflower crust pizza is better than it sounds, actually, and it’s naturally gluten-free and much lower in carbohydrates than a traditional crust,” says Hultin.
This is a simple and delicious way to boost your veggie intake and still enjoy pizza. Cauliflower has a good dose of fiber, vitamins, and minerals and provides a nice texture for the crust for fewer calories, fat, and carbs. You can also stick with bread, but choose a low-carb brand.
“My favorite super-quick homemade pizza is made using a low-carb, high-fiber tortilla such as Mission Carb Balance,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN, and author of The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.
Add in Bright Veggies As Toppings
Instead of adding meat on top of the pizza like high-fat and salty cured meats, prosciutto, bacon, sausage, buffalo chicken, steak, and pepperoni, fill the space with fresh veggies that are high in protein, antioxidants, and fiber.
“When training hard for a race, your body may need extra support from antioxidants in colorful veggies, so get creative by topping your pizza with orange, yellow, green, and red bell peppers; red onion; baby spinach or arugula; or fresh herbs like basil or oregano,” says Hultin.
Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower will be especially beneficial for protein and fiber content.
Choose Leaner Protein Sources
The most classic pizza topping is cheese, which adds protein. But you still have options, and can always further your protein intake.
“I prefer using a reduced fat (2%) cheese to keep the greasy factor in check, especially if working out afterwards,” says Harris-Pincus. “Another option is to use ricotta cheese and a sprinkle of Parmesan instead of mozzarella."
You can also go with a bold cheese like blue cheese, gorgonzola, or creamy ricotta.
“If you're going to add animal protein, consider a leaner option like chicken, anchovies, or even tuna for a boost of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids,” says Hultin.
Opt for grilled or rotisserie style chicken breast, as well as turkey pepperoni, which is lower in fat.
You can also never go wrong with an egg on top. It can provide a gooey texture and it’s high in protein and choline (the latter promotes cognitive health). With some spices and herbs like garlic powder, oregano, and red pepper, it’ll add heat and extra flavor.
Related: 3 Reasons Why You Should Eat More Eggs
For vegan and vegetarian options, consider using nutritional yeast — which has a cheesy, savory flavor that resembles the real thing — or add black beans and avocado slices for a Mexican flair that’s meatless but still offers good protein, healthy fat, and fiber.
Go With a Clean Sauce
“Marinara sauce can be a very healthy addition to an athlete's diet, as it's high in potassium, vitamin C, and antioxidants like lycopene,” says Hultin. “Though it can be high in sodium, many athletes who are training for an event like a Spartan race aren't specifically limiting sodium since they may need the electrolyte replacement, which can come naturally from the foods they eat."
You need to replace the sodium lost in perspiration through your diet. Sticking with a clean marinara is your best bet instead of creamy, high-fat alfredo or vodka sauce, for example.
“Read the labels to choose a variety with little to no added sugars so that tomatoes take center-stage,” Hultin says.
And of course, you can DIY a sauce at home. Making your own can be as simple as blending plain tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes with your favorite herbs and spices like basil and oregano.
If you’re buying one from the store, simply toast your bread option for a few minutes and then add a few tablespoons of high-quality marinara sauce, suggests Harris-Pincus. If tomato sauce isn’t for you, you can use a little bit of olive oil for healthy fats and then include the toppings and cheese, for a white-style pizza. You can even make a healthy pesto sauce, as well.