Atkins Diet and Popcorn

Carbs in popcorn are healthy because the food is a whole grain. The Atkins diet, a low-carbohydrate eating plan designed for weight loss, includes popcorn in its list of acceptable snacks ⁠— if it's cooked at home. Guidelines of the diet permit butter, cheese and olive oil popcorn toppings.

Guidelines of the diet permit popcorn made with butter, cheese and olive oil popcorn toppings. Credit: Carol Yepes/Moment/GettyImages

What Popcorn Is Healthy?

Popcorn is low in calories and minimally processed, reports the Whole Grains Council. It's also a 100-percent whole-grain food containing antioxidants and much more fiber than most fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants promote healthy blood sugar, protect the body from disease and prevent premature aging, while whole grains reduce blood pressure, lower the risk of diabetes and enhance weight management.

A study published in Antioxidants in January 2019 reveals more information about phenolic acids, the specific type of antioxidants in popcorn. It shows the food contains significant amounts, and the popping process doesn't appreciably reduce them. The discovery indicates a considerable amount of the antioxidants are bioaccessible. Popcorn may be a good dietary source of polyphenols, the authors concluded.

Popcorn is a healthy snack if, and only if, it's air-popped at home. The Whole Grains Council suggests adding flavor to popcorn with a little cinnamon or parmesan cheese. Another idea is to add lime juice and sprinkle curry or chili powder on the snack. Red pepper flakes or herbs, such as basil or oregano, can also make it tasty, says the Mayo Clinic.

Aside from the healthy aspects of popcorn, it's economical. One cup of unpopped popcorn costs 16 cents, notes Michigan State University.

What Popcorn Is Unhealthy?

While popcorn prepared at home is healthy, popcorn bought from a supermarket or movie theater is unhealthy because of additives. The high salt content elevates blood pressure. Some brands have nearby one-eighth of the daily recommended sodium intake, states the University of Massachusetts Lowell (UMass Lowell).

Read more: Is Eating Popcorn Daily Bad for You?

Another problem is the high butter and fat content, which adds calories. How does air-popped popcorn compare to movie theater popcorn? Three cups of air-popped popcorn contain 90 calories and less than 1 gram of fat, notes the Mayo Clinic. In contrast, 3 cups of movie theater popcorn contain 185 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat.

Movie theater popcorn has a well-deserved reputation for being particularly unhealthy. The American Institute for Cancer Research reports that a large container often contains 17 to 20 cups of popcorn, which has 900 to 1,000 calories. After the buttery topping is added, the caloric content can reach 1,500. Even a small box has 450 to 485 calories, an amount almost roughly equivalent to a meal.

Microwave popcorn is popular, but, in addition to the unhealthy additives, it has another downside: The lining of a popcorn bag emits harmful chemicals when exposed to heat. According to the Center for Environmental Health, the bags contain toxic agents called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances.

For those who would like to prepare their own popcorn at home and add butter, 2 tablespoons of butter add 68 calories, 8 grams of fat and 5 grams of saturated fat, says UMass Lowell. This home-prepared snack contains fat, but it doesn't have the sugar, salt and chemicals found in store-bought popcorn.

Carbs in Popcorn

Since popcorn is a whole grain, it contains healthy carbohydrates. However, when it has added sugar, it also contains unhealthy carbohydrates.

Some popcorn manufacturers, such as those that make kettle corn, add caramel and other sources of sugar. Up to 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving are found in certain brands, states UMass Lowell.

The school published a nutrient profile of some top brands of popcorn. Carbohydrate content ranged from 11 grams to 24 grams per serving. Brands containing sugar had higher amounts of carbohydrates.

The profile identified popcorns that contained not more than 170 milligrams of sodium, 0.5 grams of saturated fat and 11 grams of sugar. These were considered not as unhealthy as the others. Two Smartfood popcorn varieties made the list: Smartfood Delight Sea Salt Popcorn and Smartfood Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn.

What Is the Atkins Diet?

The Boston University School of Public Health describes the Atkins diet as a low-carbohydrate eating plan that permits not more than 20 grams per day in the initial induction phase. After two weeks, dieters may gradually increase their carbohydrates to 120 grams per day. The diet puts no restrictions on proteins, fats or calories.

Atkins snacks include certain fruits with cheese, homemade popcorn and nuts. Other low-carb snacks on the diet include soy chips and hummus with vegetables.

The Atkins diet contends that a high consumption of carbohydrates, particularly from sugar and refined carbs, leads to weight gain, poor blood sugar control and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, explains the Mayo Clinic. For this reason it restricts carbohydrates and encourages eating higher amounts of fats and proteins. The diet claims this strategy helps burn body fat stores and promotes optimal health and weight loss without feelings of hunger or deprivation.

Harvard Health notes that the main advantage of the Atkins diet comes from restricting refined carbs such as white rice, white bread, white pasta, crackers and sweets. Potential benefits include weight loss, lower triglycerides and improved blood glucose. Some studies indicate short-term positives, but no major studies have investigated the long-term effects, notes Mayo Clinic.

Is the Atkins Diet Safe?

Reducing carbohydrates in the early phase of the Atkins diet may result in dizziness, fatigue, headaches, weakness and constipation, cautions the Mayo Clinic. Some low-carbohydrate diets can also cause nausea, constipation and diarrhea.

Read more: Negative Side Effects of a Low-Carb Diet

An adverse effect of very-low-carbohydrate diets is that they limit the consumption of nutrient-dense healthy carbohydrates, namely, fruits, vegetables and whole grains, says Harvard Health. Other concerns are that high-protein diets increase the risk of kidney disease, and high-saturated-fat diets raise the likelihood of heart disease. Very-low-carbohydrate diets also elevate the risk of ketosis, which can cause negative health effects.

The Atkins diet isn't recommended for patients on diabetes medicine or diuretics or for those with severe kidney disease, states Mayo Clinic. It also isn't advised for pregnant or breastfeeding women. Check with your doctor before starting any diet.

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