If you have diabetes, it can sometimes be difficult to determine what snacks you can eat. One tool people use is the glycemic index (GI), which can help determine what foods may cause a blood sugar spike.
Fortunately, one delicious snack you can eat with diabetes is popcorn. While it's high in carbohydrates, it also has plenty of fiber, which can help stabilize blood sugar.
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Here, get a breakdown of popcorn's glycemic index, nutrition content and ways to healthily enjoy the delicious snack if you have diabetes.
It's important to note that GI is not always the optimal method of tracking your diet when you have diabetes, according to some experts. That's because it doesn't account for portion sizes, and some high-GI foods are nutritious while others are not, per Tufts University. If you want to use the GI to track your health, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian about whether it's right for you.
First, What Is the Glycemic Index?
GI is a scale from 1 to 100 that measures how quickly your blood sugar will increase after you eat certain foods that contain carbohydrates, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Low-GI foods are digested slowly and cause fewer blood sugar fluctuations, while high-GI foods can cause blood sugar spikes, which may require medical intervention (like insulin) to regulate, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Common foods that are high-GI include the following, per the National Health Service:
- Sugar and sugary foods
- Sugary beverages like soda
- White bread
- White rice
Foods that are low-GI tend to have more protein, fiber and fat, which slow down the rate they're absorbed by your body. These include the following, per the Mayo Clinic:
- Green vegetables
- Most fruits (except for bananas, pineapples, cherries and raisins)
- Kidney beans
These foods are considered good options for people with diabetes, as they gradually increase blood sugar. They can help people with type 1 and type 2 diabetes manage their glucose, lipid and insulin levels, per the Mayo Clinic.
What Is the Glycemic Index of Popcorn?
The GI value of popcorn can vary based on type and brand, but most varieties rank in the mid 50s to mid 60s, making it a low to moderate GI food, according to data from the University of Sydney's GI Search.
Plain, air-popped popcorn has a lower GI than most commercial brands. A number of variables may affect the GI value of popcorn, including the variety of corn, the cooking method and ingredients added during commercial processing, per the University of Sydney's GI Search.
To put this in perspective, chickpea hummus has a glycemic index of 6 (per the University of Sydney's GI Search), and pure glucose has a glycemic index of 100, per the National Library of Medicine (NLM).
So, can people with diabetes eat popcorn? Yes! It can be a healthy choice in moderation, largely due to its fiber content.
What About Popcorn's Glycemic Load?
While the glycemic index tells you how drastically a food raises your blood sugar, the glycemic load tells you how high your blood sugar could go when you actually eat the food, per Harvard Health Publishing. The glycemic load of food can be determined by multiplying the GI by the amount of carbs in that serving of food, per the Linus Pauling Institute.
Popcorn's glycemic load ranges from 13 to 18, per the University of Sydney's GI Search, which is considered medium (a glycemic load of 20 or more is considered high).
The Nutritional Value of Popcorn
When you prepare popcorn without lots of salt, butter or oil, it can be a nutritious, filling snack, per the American Diabetes Association (ADA).
According to the USDA, a typical serving size is about 3 cups, but the ADA mentions enjoying anywhere from 3/4 cup to 3 cups as a low-carbohydrate snack.
Here's a nutrient breakdown, per the USDA:
The Nutrition Content of Popcorn (3 cups, air-popped)
The fiber in a serving of popcorn is 3 grams per 3 cups, or 10 to 12 percent of the recommended daily amount (RDA) for the average adult, per UCSF Health.
The carbs in popcorn also provide energy without a lot of calories and almost no fat.
The Fiber in Popcorn
Popcorn is a whole-grain food — i.e., a 100-percent unprocessed grain, per the USDA. Like most whole-grain foods, this means it's full of fiber. This fiber promotes healthy digestion and may help you maintain or lose weight by filling you up with low-calorie roughage, per Houston Methodist.
The fiber mixed with protein in popcorn can also help promote satiety. Indeed, a September 2016 study in Advances in Nutrition found that popcorn enhances satiety and can therefore play a role in appetite control and weight management.
Why Is Fiber Important for People With Diabetes?
Fiber is a critical component for people with diabetes because it slows down the absorption of sugar and helps steady your blood sugar levels, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While popcorn does contain carbohydrates, the fiber content in the popcorn slows down the rate at which carbohydrates are digested and prevents blood sugar spikes.
The Vitamins and Minerals in Popcorn
Apart from fiber, popcorn contains a number of essential nutrients, making it a nutritious snack, too. The vitamins in popcorn include folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins A, B6, E and K, per the USDA.
Popcorn also contains a number of minerals like iron, calcium, copper, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc, per the USDA.
Plus, the kernel's hull (outer coating) also contains beta-carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin, which can help support the health of your eyes, per the Prostate Cancer Foundation.
The hull also has polyphenols that have antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, per the University of Scranton, which protects against diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, according to a November 2017 review in Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity.
How to Enjoy Popcorn as a Diabetes-Friendly Snack
Here are some options to make popcorn diabetes-friendly, with some tips from the Cleveland Clinic.
1. Air-Pop It
The best way to prepare popcorn to make it diabetes-friendly is to air-pop it without additional fat like butter or oil. These diminish the nutritional value of the popcorn and should be enjoyed sparingly (looking at you, movie theater popcorn).
You can buy loose kernels at the grocery store and air-pop them yourself using a hot air popper, such as Orville Redenbacher's Presto Hot Air Popper ($29.89, Amazon).
2. Use Herbs Instead of Salt
If you are on a salt- or sodium-restricted diet and want to add flavor, try sprinkling on less salt and adding herbal seasonings like dried oregano, basil, thyme and paprika for a kick. You can sprinkle on garlic or onion powder, too, for added flavor.
And if you're a fan of kettle corn, sprinkle it with a dash of stevia or artificial sweetener to add a little sweetness without adding sugar.
If you're unsure about the amount of sugar you can safely eat with diabetes, talk to your doctor, dietitian or a diabetes care and education specialist, who can help point you in the right direction.
3. Try Olive Oil Instead of Butter
If your popcorn tastes a little dry, you can add a bit of olive oil instead of butter, which is actually more beneficial for your heart, per the American Heart Association. You can also spray it lightly with butter-flavored cooking spray.
4. Try a New Recipe
To spice things up, you can make a seasoning blend for your popcorn with ingredients like balsamic vinegar, lemon juice and hot sauce. Or, you can find creative popcorn recipes online, like the recipes and ideas here.
5. Read the Nutrition Labels
Sometimes, you just want the convenience of microwave popcorn versus loose kernels. If you're going that route, read the label on the box carefully. Some brands of commercially prepared popcorn can be higher in fat, sodium and calories, but there are also many "light" varieties with less of these.
And if you're planning to enjoy some delicious movie theater popcorn, get a small size, without added butter, and eat it in moderation.
How to Enjoy High-GI Foods
If you decide to use the GI value of foods to help regulate your blood sugar, combining low-GI foods with moderate-GI and high-GI foods throughout the day can result in a diet with moderate-GI, per the NLM. This can help balance the effects that certain foods will have on your blood sugar, while still letting you enjoy delicious options.
Alternatives to Popcorn
If you find popcorn with limited or no butter and salt to be too bland, there are other snacks you can try that can fit within a diabetes-friendly diet. Some ideas include the following, per the Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists:
- Unsalted pistachios
- Apple slices
- Carrot sticks with hummus
- Mandarin oranges
- Bell pepper slices
- Plain Greek yogurt
- Whole-grain, low-sodium tortilla chips with mashed avocado
So, does popcorn spike your blood sugar? This can all depend on the way it's prepared, and whether you eat it in combination with low-GI foods.
Popcorn can be a healthy snack for people with diabetes, as its glycemic load is low and it's full of fiber and protein that can help your blood sugar steadily increase rather than spike.
Plus, popcorn is low in calories (when air-popped without butter, salt or hydrogenated oils) and is a great source of several essential vitamins and minerals.
If you wish to enjoy popcorn, aim for a serving size of about 2 to 3 cups and eat it in combination with low-GI foods, per the ADA. If you wish to eat microwave and movie theater varieties, get a small size, without added butter, and enjoy in moderation.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "What Is Glycemic Index?"
- National Health Service: "What is the Glycaemic Index?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Low-glycemic index diet: What's behind the claims?"
- University of Sydney GI Search: "Popcorn"
- University of Sydney's GI Search: "Chickpea Hummus"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The lowdown on glycemic index and glycemic load"
- Linus Pauling Institute: "Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load"
- American Diabetes Association: "What Can I Eat? Smart Snacks"
- USDA: "Snacks, popcorn, air-popped"
- UCSF Health: "Increasing Fiber Intake"
- USDA: "Popcorn: A Healthy, Whole Grain Snack"
- Houston Methodist: "7 Benefits of Fiber That Should Convince You to Eat Enough of It"
- Advances in Nutrition: "Snack Food, Satiety, and Weight"
- CDC: "Fiber: The Carb That Helps You Manage Diabetes"
- Prostate Cancer Foundation: "Popcorn: Friend or Foe"
- University of Scranton: "Popcorn Study Puts Scranton Faculty Member and Student in National Spotlight"
- Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity: "Polyphenols and Oxidative Stress in Atherosclerosis-Related Ischemic Heart Disease and Stroke"
- American Heart Association: "The benefits of adding a drizzle of olive oil to your diet"
- Tufts University: "High variability suggests glycemic index is unreliable indicator of blood sugar response"
- Association of Diabetes Care & Education Specialists: "Healthy Snacking for People with Diabetes"
- Cleveland Clinic: "9 Tips for a Healthier Popcorn"
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: Popcorn: Oil in a Day’s Work