Pizza may be the greatest cause of childhood obesity, according to a new study from the University of Illinois.

Children consume more fat, calories and salt on days when they eat pizza, compared to periods when they did not eat the food. Strangely, the research team found that pizza as a snack was less healthy than when consumed as a meal. Pizza contributed an extra 84 calories, 134 milligrams of sodium, and three grams of saturated fat to the diet of children on days when they consumed the food. Adolescents saw an even larger effect from pizza, taking in an extra 230 calories, 484 milligrams of sodium, and five grams of saturated fat.  

Pizza is the second-most popular category of food among children in the United States, trailing only bread-based deserts, such as doughnuts. Each day, around 22 percent of American children, between the ages of six and 19, consume pizza. This is higher than the 14 percent of toddlers, and 13 percent of adults, who eat the foods on a given day.

"Curbing pizza consumption alone isn't enough to significantly reduce the adverse dietary effects of pizza. It's a very common and convenient food, so improving the nutritional content of pizza, in addition to reducing the amount of pizza eaten, could help lessen its negative nutritional impact," Lisa M. Powell of the University of Illinois at Chicago said.

Researchers found that whether or not schools served pizza at lunch, levels of sodium, saturated fat, and calories stayed about the same. The team believes this could be because other food choices offered by schools are just as nutritionally-poor as pizza.

The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey collected information on dietary habits of children, ages two to 19, between the years 2003 and 2010. Data from this survey was examined, in an effort to isolate the nutritional value of pizza in the diet of youth.

Roughly five percent of American youths are affected by high blood pressure, making sodium consumption by kids a major concern for nutritionists.

"Because when pizza is consumed, it increases the total daily calories that children and adolescents take in, it could be an important contributor to the obesity epidemic. Moderating pizza consumption should become another goal in our efforts to reduce obesity in U.S. youth," William Dietz from the Milken Institute School of Public Health at George Washington University, stated in a university press release.

Varying nutrition levels and portion sizes among different styles and brands of pizzas make the data in the study less than exact.

Energy and Nutrient Intake From Pizza in the United States, an article detailing research into the role played by pizza in the diet of American children, was published in the journal Pediatrics.

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