It’s no secret Americans love pizza, especially members of the younger generation. In fact, pizza is the second-highest source of energy in the diet of young Americans. A study conducted at the University of Illinois, Chicago, has found that on days children eat pizza they also consume a dramatically higher amount of calories, fat, and sodium compared to days they don’t eat pizza.

“Curbing pizza consumption alone isn’t enough to significantly reduce the adverse dietary effects of pizza,” Lisa Powell, associate director of the Health Policy Center at the Institute of Health Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a statement. “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.”

Powell and her colleagues gathered data using the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey between 2003 and 2010. The impact of pizza consumption on intakes of sugar, saturated fat, sodium, and total energy intake was estimated using 24-hour dietary recall data from children between the ages of 2 and 11 and adolescents between the ages of 12 and 19.

Findings showed that between 2003 and 2010 the amount of calories from pizza consumed during dinnertime fell but stayed the same for pizza eaten at lunch and from school cafeterias. Overall, caloric intake from pizza among children between the ages of 2 and 11 dropped by 25 percent. Caloric intake from pizza also fell among adolescents; however, the prevalence of pizza consumption increased.

Although rates of pizza consumption may have declined, children consumed an additional 84 calories, 3 grams of saturated fat, and 134 milligrams of sodium on days they ate pizza. On days adolescents ate pizza, they consumed an extra 230 calories, 5g of saturated fat, and 484mg of sodium compared to days they did not eat pizza.

“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,” said Dr. William Dietz, director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. “Moderating pizza consumption should become another goal in our efforts to reduce obesity in U.S. youth.”

According to the research team, the excess calories, fat, and sodium consumed on days that pizza was eaten means children and adolescents are not compensating by eating less food or healthier food. On days pizza was eaten, it made up 22 percent of total caloric intake for children and 26 percent of total caloric intake for adolescents. Researchers suggest improving the nutrient content of pizza, considering around 20 percent of Americans under the age of 20 consume pizza on any given day.

Source: Dietz W, Nguyen B, Powell L. Energy and Nutrient Intake From Pizza in the United States. Pediatrics. 2015.