When you're on a restricted diet, it's normal to find yourself wanting a snack. You want something satisfying and tasty that still fits in with what you're "allowed" to have, so low-calorie, low-carb popcorn could be a great option, but you need to be careful with how it's prepared.
Read more: 12 Ways to Make Popcorn More Exciting
Whole Grains for Good Health
Popcorn is often hailed as a great snack because it's made from whole grain, so it's high in fiber and other nutrients. It's also extremely low in calories for something so filling: A single cup of air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories. It has a negligible amount of fat and 1.2 grams of fiber. The carbohydrates in popcorn are only 6.2 grams. It's also a great source of other nutrients:
- Vitamins: folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins B6, A, E and K
- Minerals: iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc
The complex carbohydrates in popcorn are good for people who are watching their blood sugar because they have a low glycemic index, a scale that refers to how much your blood sugars rise after eating. Foods that break down quickly in your digestive system rank high on the glycemic index because they spike your blood sugar; on the other hand, foods that are broken down slowly, such as low-carb popcorn, produce only a gradual rise in blood sugar, and these rank low.
Low-glycemic foods are good for your glucose and lipid levels, especially for people with diabetes. They are also good for weight loss because they help control appetite and delay hunger.
Be Careful With Preparation
The health benefits of popcorn aren't foolproof, unfortunately. If you prepare your popcorn with too much butter or salt, you can quickly add too many calories or offset all the good aspects of it as a snack.
There's no better example of this than at the movie theater. The American Institute for Cancer Research notes that movie theater popcorn is popped in oil and served in huge portions with buttery topping — and a large bag can contain up to 20 cups of popcorn and 1,500 calories after the buttery topping is added!
In 2009, the Center for Science in the Public Interest took a look at some specific preparation methods at major national cinema companies and found some numbers that might shock anyone thinking of popcorn as a healthy snack.
Even though this survey is about 10 years old, it's the most recent nutritional information available for concessions at Regal Entertainment Group, where a small popcorn comes with 11 cups of popcorn that yields 670 calories and 34 grams of saturated fat before the addition of any buttery topping. That small bag also has about 550 milligrams of sodium.
What is advertised as buttery topping is often nonhydrogenated soybean oil and has about 130 calories per 1-tablespoon pump of it. That 1 tablespoon also has 9 grams of saturated fat and 0.4 grams of trans fat.
Fortunately, AMC Theatres offers popcorn options that are a little more reasonable. Its popcorn is made with either canola oil or coconut oil, and a small serving (called a cameo) has only 300 calories with 13 grams of fat.
Read more: Is Eating Popcorn Daily Bad for You?
Popcorn and Carbs for Keto
All of this advice depends on what type of diet you are following to lose weight. Somebody on the ketogenic diet — which allows very few carbs and a lot of fat — will have very different restrictions from someone on a moderate-carb, low-fat diet or similar eating plan.
The idea behind the ketogenic diet is to encourage the body to use stored fat for energy, according to Harvard Health. The body's preferred source of energy is sugar made from digested carbohydrates, like those in popcorn, but when the body is deprived of carbs, it instead undergoes a process called ketosis where it breaks down stored fat to use for energy. It usually takes about two to four days of eating fewer than 20 to 50 grams of carbohydrates for a person to enter ketosis.
Although keto diets generally discourage starchy vegetables like corn, a cup of low-carb popcorn could easily fit into this eating plan because it has only 6 grams of carbohydrates.
Contrary to what other diet plans might require, adding butter or oil to popcorn might make it more appropriate. That's because a keto diet encourages consumption of fat — sometimes as much as 90 percent of a person's caloric intake. A 2,000-calorie diet might have 165 grams of fat and 40 grams of carbs.
Saturated fats, such as palm oil, coconut oil, lard, butter and cocoa butter, are also highly emphasized. Therefore, a keto dieter might be more inclined to consume movie theater popcorn, as Regal Entertainment Group and AMC Theatres use an ideal keto popcorn recipe — they use coconut oil to cook the corn kernels.
Even with this keto popcorn recipe, portion control would still be an issue because there are 18 to 21 grams of carbohydrates in popcorn when it's served in amounts of 3 or 4 cups, and this would take the body out of ketosis. This ideal keto popcorn recipe might add fat, but it can't take away carbs; only portion control can limit that.
The keto diet is great for quick, short-term weight loss, as seen in a small April 2014 study published in PLOS One. In the study, which involved a pool of only 34 participants, one group of test subjects ate a low-carb, high-fat, non-calorie-restricted diet with the goal to induce nutritional ketosis, while another group ate a medium-carbohydrate, low-fat, calorie-restricted diet. Both groups lost weight, but the first group also saw improvements in blood glucose.
Still, the keto diet was originally intended not for weight loss but to reduce epileptic seizures in children. It's effectiveness for weight loss and overall health has not been studied over long periods, and keto dieters who don't watch what they eat could consume too much protein and fat from processed foods while taking in very few nutrients because they're lacking fruits and vegetables.
Other Whole Grains You’ll Love
No two people are alike, so you have to decide whether popcorn fits into your diet based on your personal goals. If you're following a low-carb, high-saturated-fat plan for quick weight loss, a small portion of movie theater popcorn could be a reasonable choice.
However, if you want to enjoy the health benefits of whole grains, a bowl of 3 or 5 cups of fat-free air-popped popcorn can fulfill one of your recommended six to eight servings of grains.
Other great carbohydrate-rich grains like popcorn include oats, quinoa, rice and wheat. Try using oats and puffed brown rice to make cereal bars, or pair whole-grain wheat crackers with hummus or low-fat cheese. These options, as well as popcorn, will provide you with the carbohydrates your body prefers to use for energy.
- The Popcorn Board: “Popcorn Nutrition Facts”
- Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center: “Is Popcorn a Healthy Snack? It Can Be”
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: “BIG: Movie Theaters Fill Buckets…and Bellies”
- American Institute for Cancer Research: “AIRC Health Talk”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Ketogenic Diet: Is the Ultimate Low-Carb Diet Good for You?”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Should You Try the Keto Diet?”
- PLOS One: “A Randomized Pilot Trial of a Moderate Carbohydrate Diet Compared to a Very Low Carbohydrate Diet in Overweight or Obese Individuals With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus or Prediabetes”
- MyFoodData: "Snacks Popcorn Air-Popped"
- AMC Theatres: "Nutrition Information"