Friday, April 27, 2012

Tackling Pizza/ Junk Food/ Disordered Thinking

Pizza was the focus of several conversations this morning. And we weren’t discussing ordering lunch. The subject was challenging foods, and pizza was mentioned during more than one patient session. And I didn’t bring up this potentially triggering topic.

One of my favorite pizza places in Bar Harbor, ME
“It’s junk food”, one young woman stated firmly.  “Why’s that?” I probed. Silence, she responded, uncertain. “The grease”, was another’s response, in a different session. Seeing all that grease was problematic. For others, pizza equals fast food, convenient take-out—all of which has to be “bad”. For others, it’s about portioning. I mean, how much is okay to eat for lunch? Or, for dinner? “And how do you stop”, others have asked.

For some, pizza is fine if you’ve made it yourself—at least you know just what went into it. For others, it’s okay if it’s organic or whole wheat. For most everyone it’s fine if it can be eaten in control.

So what is it about pizza?

As I sit down to write this piece I recall how shocked I was at age 9, when I overheard the conversation. The birthday-party hostess, my friend’s mother, related to my mother with shock and horror that I downed 4 slices of pizza! Besides feeling full, I can’t say I thought anything of it at the time—that is until I heard her comment. And I can remember many a comment my mother had made about my appetite—that I eat as much as my 6’1” father, for instance—not exactly stated with pride, I’ll add. Yet she failed to recognize that her baseline for comparison was her chronic dieting and self-denial, and that my father could easily have been described as low body weight. And, I was a preteen, growing to a height at the 95th%ile. Why should it come as any surprise I had a hefty appetite? I was perhaps expending more calories than my non-growing father! Four slices for me was slightly more than appropriate, I recall.

Okay, okay, now that I processed some of that therapeutic history, let’s talk more about pizza and you.

Lessons about eating pizza

It helps to break it down into smaller pieces. Well, I don’t mean that literally. Rather, that it helps to think about what pizza really is to make it easier to digest. The base has three ingredients: flour, yeast and salt. Period. How bad is that?  Not very at all!

Homemade, grilled pizza. Delicious!
And the way most American large size pizza pies (made from a pound of dough) are cut into eighths, a slice is like two slices of bread. And then there’s the cheese. Less than an ounce per slice, at most places (although there certainly are exceptions). 

And the grease? It's simply what you see when you heat up cheese. If you must, blot it. Otherwise, just recognize it as separated cheese. And then there’s an insignificant amount of sauce (which the US school lunch program would like to count as a vegetable serving but is hardly enough to count!)

How does it fit or compare to other meals you might be having? Well, the protein- rich element is much lower—again, for 2 slices, that’s less than 2 ounces—much less than anyone would need for a dinner meal—that’s for certain. So if the grain or starch component is larger than you’d usually eat, just remember that the protein is way less than you need.

How do I eat it in control?

• Don’t serve it from the table! Pizza, in my opinion, smells yummy, and it’s easy when foods smell good and taste good, to eat them beyond a comfortable level of fullness. Keep it warming in the oven. Or simply get a couple slices to go, when you are first starting out. But really you might need more than just 2 to meet your needs. Maybe even 2 ½ slices. Yes, you can cut slices in half! Ask them to do it at the pizza place. Tell them it’s for your baby sister.

• Serve it with other items—a salad, cooked veggies, a glass of milk, a cut up fruit—to help you add some balance and some modest volume to know when you are full.

• Stop calling it junk food! If you label it junk, you think you have done something wrong. And if you think you’ve done wrong, you’re likely to feel ashamed. You may view it in black and white terms, thinking you must compensate for having eaten it. And that will get you into some real trouble!

And what about things that really are junk? You know, they have no redeeming value from a nutrient stand point? About those foods, I say enjoy them. Not 5 times a day. Not with rigid rules like “only on the 3rd Friday of the month”! No, make them a part of your regular routine, but include them instead of something you typically eat (but that you don’t necessarily enjoy), when you need the fuel, when you are hungry or need to have a snack on your plan.

Don’t approach pizza or any meals feeling ravenous! It is a recipe for disaster. You’ll eat too fast, and will likely eat beyond a comfortable level of fullness.

Allow yourself to have pizza regularly. You need the practice!

So go ahead and enjoy some pizza. Try it topped with fresh fig, sliced pear or pineapple, or maybe artichoke or roasted peppers. And don’t listen to anyone else’s comments about pizza or about how much you’re allowed to be eating!

Let me know how it goes!


  1. Thank you a lot for this post. It really resonates me and shows me the different stages of my recovery journey. When I was deep into my eating disorder pizza was among the list of "forbidden" foods. Through a lot of pushing I finally decided to try homemade pizza for the first time a few months ago. After eating (and enjoying) that a few times I was challenged to order pizza out some where. After all it's the EXACT same thing,; bread, cheese, sauce, possible meat/veggies depending on how you like it.

    For me, it's been really helpful to take apart foods like you described. When I am able to realize that a slice of pizza has similar ingredients to the sandwich that I always eat, it lessens my fear. I am slowly learning to let go of my "good" and "bad" food labels.

    Again, thanks a lot for this post.

  2. Oh no, after reading this, I'm craving for pizza. Not the healthy kind either... but pepperoni with lots of extra cheese. You only live once, right? ;)

  3. This is funny to me because after gastric bypass pizza was the one thing I craved the most. I do occasionally have pizza when I'm really wanting it. I do it when I'm sharing with a friend and I no longer sit down and eat half the family size. I know that if it were up to my surgeon I would never eat this and many other "bad" foods again however I don't feel like I can live my life that way. So I'm trying to find that balance that is livable for me where I can be healthy and feel fulfilled.

  4. I LOVE pizza!!! It's a great way to get in all your food groups, as long as it's topped with the appropriate toppings. I frequently tell this to people, to their surprise, that pizza is a great food to eat. Enjoyed reading your post :)

  5. I had pizza for dinner tonight (before reading this post - what a coincidence!). I love pizza!

    I guess it's true that it was on my list of "bad foods" for a long time. I think what helped me to begin eating it, actually, was that treatment centers serve pizza and I ate it there. Also, pizza has a "bad" reputation but it's not necessarily all that high in calories.... So, actually, it somehow became a safer food for me at some point along the way - probably because I thought I could estimate the calories for it fairly well. I don't count calories anymore though.

    I know for me, for my particular body, 2 slices is occasionally enough - but usually I need three slices. And if the slices are just medium-sized, then of course I need more. Also, for a while, I always ordered veggie pizza... but then I just got real with myself. My favorite kind of pizza is cheese. Plain cheese. 4 cheese (especially if one of them is blue cheese) is even better. So now, I don't even try to be different than my true craving: plain cheese pizza.

    1. I LOVE plain cheese pizza! It is the only way I have ever eaten it. My friends all think that I am a little strange...

  6. I definitely needed help overcoming my 'fear' of pizza, but now that I have (with your help), it is actually one of my safer foods. How ironic is that? I guess because I now know how to count it and I enjoy it loaded with seems like an ok food to have. And it makes me feel 'normal'. I will say, however, that making my own was definitely the first step...that was a great place to start.

  7. Heh Im so glad that the only thing I couldnt say a huge "yes" to was the idea of fruit on pizza- a terible blasphemy :P
    Great article!

  8. Had pizza for dinner tonight, and thought of you and this post :)

  9. Had pizza for dinner again last night - haha, I just figure I'll tell you every time I have pizza from now until your next post :)

  10. This is extremely random-- I stumbled across your blog from another ED blog about the conference [and I'm in recovery-ish]. Can you tell me the name of your fave bar harbor pizza place? I'm going there on vacay for the first time this week & it looks fabulous!

  11. LOL! The pizza place is called Rosalie's and it's on the main drag in the center of town. I'm envious--I love Acadia! Fabulous hiking and a great town. Happy to provide you with any other recommendations--just email!

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  13. I discovered a place that makes gluten-free pizza. I get it with a heap of veggies, dough is only there to keep the thing together. And since it's gluten-free, people think it's yucky so it's all mine, nobody wants to share and I have two or three dinners. [shameless bragging] see? not fifteen, neither one, along with a bucket of ice cream and anything else that doesn't run away[/shameless bragging]

    Maybe it's something cultural but I never considered pizza a junk food anyway.