When the craving for something crunchy, salty and savory strikes, you might find yourself scouring the snack aisle debating between two tasty options: chips or popcorn.
Do yourself (and your health) a favor and pick the popcorn. Popcorn has fewer inflammatory fats and calories as well more fiber, deeming it a more nutritious choice than chips.
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Popcorn vs. Chips Nutrition
5 Reasons Popcorn Is More Nutritious Than Chips
1. Popcorn Contains Fewer Inflammatory Fats
Chips — both the potato and tortilla varieties — have a significantly higher fat content than popcorn. And while high-fat foods aren't necessarily unhealthy (look at salmon and avocados!), the type of fat a food contains (versus the amount) can tell us a lot about its quality, says dietitian Amanda Holtzer, RD.
And the kinds of fats found in chips are not your friend.
Here's why: The go-to varieties of oil used for frying potato and tortilla chips are peanut, vegetable and canola oils. "These oils are not the anti-inflammatory, nutrient-dense, healthy-fat-containing oils we love to rave about," Holtzer says. "In fact, they're quite the opposite."
"Vegetable oils, such as the ones typically used for fried foods like potato and tortilla chips, have a high content of polyunsaturated fats called omega-6 fatty acids," Holtzer says. Though omega-6s are essential in small amounts, they can be harmful if you eat too much of them.
That's because "when these fats are heated to high temperatures (which happens during the frying process), they oxidize and break down into unstable molecules," Holtzer says. "And when consumed in excess, these oxidized fats can contribute to inflammation."
All this to say, compared to chips, air-popped popcorn has fewer pro-inflammatory fats, making it a more nutritious option.
2. Popcorn Has Fewer Calories
Popcorn is also significantly lower in calories than chips.
Think of it like this: You can have almost 3 1/2 cups of popcorn for the same number of calories as 15 chips, Holtzer says. That means your calories go further with popcorn.
And "if you're someone who struggles with portion sizes, this can make a huge difference," Holtzer says. Especially if you have the occasional habit of snacking straight from the bag.
That's why "popcorn is a great snack to enjoy during those more mindless moments such as working, doing homework or watching TV," Holtzer says. In other words, you can munch on a few cups without breaking the calorie bank.
3. Popcorn Is a Whole Grain
Yep, popcorn is actually considered a whole grain. That means popcorn provides a plethora of nutrients that chips don't.
For starters, "one of the key benefits of whole grains is their fiber content," Holtzer says. Fiber is essential for healthy digestion. "It helps to add bulk and soften the stool, making for seamless potty time," Holtzer says.
But fiber's benefits go way beyond pleasant bowel movements. "This regularity also serves to prevent more serious conditions like diabetes, obesity, some cancers and cardiovascular disease," Holtzer says.
In fact, fiber fosters heart health thanks to its effect on cholesterol levels. "Fiber lowers serum levels of cholesterol," Holtzer says. "It binds with LDL [i.e., bad] cholesterol in the intestine and then drags it out of the body via the stool, thereby preventing that LDL from ever entering the bloodstream."
But fiber isn't popcorn's only health perk. "Whole grains [like popcorn] also pack a mean micronutrient punch," Holtzer says. "They contain several nutrients essential to health, including folate, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, pantothenic acid and vitamins A, E, K and B6."
4. Popcorn Is More Filling
One serving of popcorn will keep your stomach more satisfied than the same amount of chips.
"One of the primary reasons why whole grains [like popcorn] are so satiating is their fiber content," Holtzer says. For example, 3 cups of popped popcorn (about a medium-sized bowl) have about 4 grams of fiber.
"Because fiber cannot be absorbed by our digestive system, it slows down the entire process of digestion," Holtzer says. "And the slower that process, the longer you feel full and satiated."
5. Popcorn Helps Keep Your Blood Sugar Steady
High-fiber popcorn is also particularly good at stabilizing your blood sugar levels.
That's because fiber slows the digestion of carbohydrates, Holtzer says. "Therefore, the glucose from those carbs is extracted and released into the bloodstream at a much slower rate, preventing a fast spike in blood sugar," she explains.
That means popcorn is an ideal snack for anyone watching their glucose levels or those living with diabetes or prediabetes, Holtzer says.
What to Look for When Buying Popcorn
Before you purchase popcorn, consider making your own from scratch. Holtzer recommends popping your own homemade popcorn if you have an air popper. "It's actually super easy to make, and there's no butter or oil needed," she says.
Once the popcorn is popped, spray it with olive oil spray and sprinkle with a dash of sea salt and pepper.
But if you prefer to buy popcorn from the grocery store, the type you choose makes a big difference in how nutritious it is, so skip the high-calorie, high-fat movie popcorn drowning in butter and opt for air-popped.
And always check the ingredients label: The only ingredients listed should be popcorn, oil, salt or spices, Holtzer says. Also, opt for the small, individual-sized bags for easier portion control, she adds.
Popcorn Brands to Try
What to Look for When Buying Chips
Still have a hankering for chips (we're not judging)? That's OK. Simply pick your potato and tortilla chips more strategically for better health.
Choose baked versus fried varieties to decrease fat content and calories, Holtzer says. Or you can also try "popped" potato chips, which are typically lower in calories and fat with bigger portion sizes, she says.
When it comes to choosing more nourishing tortilla chips, once again, a short list of simple ingredients — corn, oil and salt — is key, Holtzer says.
And if you're adventurous, Holtzer recommends trying non-traditional bean-based tortilla chips. "These are typically lower in saturated fat and have a great amount of fiber from the beans," she says.
Tortilla Chip Brands to Try