If you want a healthier replacement for potato chips, there are fewer calories in popcorn kernels. Reap the benefits of a crunchy snack and forgo all the sodium and calories that usually come with it.
According to the USDA, there are approximately 240 calories in a quarter-cup of unpopped microwave popcorn. The USDA does not provide nutritional information on popped popcorn, so these are the calories in unpopped kernels. The calorie count will vary once the popcorn is popped and any oils or salts are added.
Calories in Popcorn Kernels
Snack foods are typically frowned on by nutritionists as they have high levels of fat and sugar. Although this may be true, snacking isn't inherently bad. It all comes down to what you eat and how much you eat. For example, a February 2012 cohort study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports that snacking may improve diet quality in adults and boost your nutrient intake.
A January 2019 study published in Antioxidants found that the popping process of popcorn kernels doesn't significantly decrease their antioxidant capacity. This study was funded by the Weaver Popcorn Company, Van Buren, Indiana, while other samples were provided by Amish Country Popcorn, East Berne, Indiana. As the researchers note, popcorn is a significant source of polyphenols, a class of antioxidants. Furthermore, these nutrients are not lost during processing.
Popcorn, which is one of the most popular snacks in the world, also boasts large doses of fiber and antioxidants known as phenolic acids. Among the different grains (oats, wheat and rice), corn exhibits the highest antioxidant activity due to these phenolic acids.
Read more: How Healthy Is Popcorn?
Popcorn isn't necessarily unhealthy, but it is high in carbs and fiber, which may cause digestive discomfort when consumed in large amounts. It's important to practice portion control with all food categories, including this snack.
Benefits of Whole Grains
Whole grains include wheat, corn, rice, barley, the super grain quinoa (which is popular among dieters) and rye, among others. According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, at least half (3 ounces) of your daily total grain intake should be whole grains. Although most Americans reach or exceed the recommended nine to 11 servings of grains per day, fewer than 8 percent eat the recommended three servings of whole grains.
An October 2016 review published in the Journal of Nutritional Health & Food Science suggests that whole-grain consumption may improve metabolic health. These foods help regulate blood sugar levels, module the gut flora and may help lower cholesterol levels. The phytochemicals in whole grains support metabolic function and may protect against obesity, metabolic syndrome and diabetes, among other ailments.
Unlike refined cereals, whole grains have the bran and germ intact. Therefore, they are higher in fiber, phenolic acids, lutein, zeaxanthin and flavonoids. Refined wheat, for example, is about 93 percent lower in ferulic acid, 79 percent lower in flavonoids and 51 percent lower in lutein compared to its unprocessed counterpart. The bioactive compounds in whole grains may help improve glucose metabolism and lower diabetes risk, as noted in the above review.
Read more: 13 Powerful Grains and Seeds
Incorporating Whole Grains
You can easily add whole grains to your diet, oftentimes with recipes you already enjoy. Make easy substitutions, such as the following:
- Replace a crunchy snack like potato chips with popcorn.
- Switch half the white flour to whole-wheat flour in your regular recipes for baked goods like cookies, muffins, bread or pancakes.
- Replace one-third of the flour used in a recipe with quick oats or old-fashioned oats.
- When making bread stuffing, add a half-cup of cooked bulgar, wild rice or barley.
- Add half a cup of wheat or rye berries, wild rice, brown rice, sorghum or barley to a favorite canned or homemade soup.
- Use whole corn meal for cornbread or corn muffins.
- Add three-quarters of a cup of uncooked oats when making meatballs, burgers or meatloaf for each pound of ground beef or turkey.
- Mix in a handful of rolled oats in your yogurt — no cooking necessary!
Getting sick of old recipes? You can also incorporate whole grains into your diet by trying new foods:
- Try making risotto, pilaf or other rice dishes with whole grains like barley, brown rice, bulgar or quinoa.
- Eat whole-grain salads like tabbouleh.
- Instead of regular pasta, try whole-grain pasta.
- Serve your meals with whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
- Look for cereals made with kasha or spelt.
Start your day with a handful of popcorn or enjoy it as a snack between meals. Just make sure you keep it healthy. Use salt in moderation and snack on homemade popcorn rather than store-bought varieties, which tend to be higher in sugar and fats. Refrain from adding cheese and other high-calorie ingredients.
- Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Snacking Is Associated With Overall Diet Quality Among Adults"
- ACS Publications: "Assessment of the Bioaccessibility and Bioavailability of the Phenolic Compounds of Prunus avium L. by in Vitro Digestion and Cell Model"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: How to Make at Least Half of Grains Whole Grains"
- USDA: "365 Everyday Value, Microwave Popcorn"
- Oldways Whole Grains Council: "Whole Grains 101"
- Journal of Nutritional Health & Food Science: "Whole Grains in Amelioration of Metabolic Derangements"
- Antioxidants: "Analysis of Popcorn (Zea Mays L. var. Everta) for Antioxidant Capacity and Total Phenolic Content"
- International Foundation for Gastrointestinal Disorders: "Dietary Fiber"
- Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "Analysis of Popcorn (Zea Mays L. var. Everta) for Antioxidant Capacity and Total Phenolic Content"