Counting calories sometimes means restricting your snack habits, but because popcorn has so few calories for its volume — a cup of air-popped popcorn has only 31 calories, according to the USDA — it's a great option for dieters.
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But not so fast. Although popcorn is a naturally low-calorie, practically fat-free food, that doesn't mean it's always going to be a healthy option. When it's cooked in butter or oil, the calories can quickly add up. Learning how to prepare popcorn without oil is a great way to keep your calories low; however, unless you're on a tightly calorie-restricted diet, a little bit of oil might be good for you.
Why Choose Popcorn?
The Popcorn Board hails popcorn as a great way to include more whole grains in your diet: A single serving of popcorn suffices 70 percent of some people's daily recommended intake. Its high fiber content and low glycemic index mean popcorn doesn't affect blood sugar levels the way refined carbohydrate snacks would. It's great for controlling your appetite and can even be helpful for people with diabetes.
Read more: Popcorn Side Effects
No matter how healthy a snack option popcorn is, the Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center explains that its healthy aspects don't count if you cover it with salt, butter or margarine. And if you choose microwave popcorn, many of these toppings are already included in the bag. In fact, Cleveland Clinic refers to microwave popcorn as the unhealthiest way of consuming popcorn.
So how does microwave popcorn compare to air-popped popcorn? The USDA lists butter-flavored microwave popcorn as having 42 calories per cup, about one-third more than plain air-popped popcorn. It also has higher fat content, at 2 grams of fat compared with practically no fat, not to mention less protein and carbohydrates.
But very few people stop at eating just a cup of microwave popcorn. If you eat the entire bag, you will have consumed 465 calories with 26 grams of fat, about 12 of which are saturated fat.
Making Popcorn Without Oil
If you want to make fat-free popcorn without oil or butter, your easiest option is to get an air popper, which the Cleveland Clinic recommends because, as the appliance's name implies, it is able to pop kernels using only air.
Of course, if you don't want to buy a new appliance for your kitchen, you do have other options. Michigan State University Extension recommends making your own homemade bag of microwave popcorn by putting a quarter-cup of kernels in a brown paper bag (such as a lunch bag). Fold the opening tightly closed and microwave it for two minutes or until the popping slows. That's all it takes to make popcorn without oil!
Read more: 12 Ways to Make Popcorn More Exciting
If you prefer to make stovetop popcorn, many experts — including Cleveland Clinic and Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center — agree that heart-healthy oil is a good option compared to butter, even if it does add some additional calories. Cleveland Clinic explains that using oil is a great way to decrease hunger and that olive oil, walnut oil, avocado oil and canola oil are all acceptable options for stovetop popcorn.
Scientific studies, such as those included in a March 2018 review published by the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, are quick to highlight the health benefits of olive oil, which contains polyphenols that stave off cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as prevent cancer, boost the immune system, and fight oxidation and inflammation.
But people who are strictly watching their weight will still want to be careful about the amount of oil they use because fat intake still affects weight-loss efforts. As a study published in September 2015 in Cell Metabolism found, even though carbohydrate-restricted diets are gaining in popularity, fat restriction might still be important.
The study looked at a small group of only 19 people who were struggling with obesity, and it found that cutting dietary fat led to a greater amount of body fat loss than cutting carbohydrates.
The important takeaway? If you're looking for a healthy snack, go with stovetop popcorn made with olive oil; if you're restricting calories, air-popped popcorn is the way to go. No matter what, avoid the microwaveable stuff.
Read more: Sneaky Salted "Caramel" Popcorn
- Popcorn Board: “Popcorn Nutrition Facts”
- Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center: “Is Popcorn a Healthy Snack? It Can Be”
- Cleveland Clinic: “9 Best Tips to Help You Make Healthier Popcorn”
- USDA: “Air-Popped Popcorn”
- USDA: “Popcorn, Microwave, Butter Flavor”
- Michigan State University: “Keeping Popcorn Healthy”
- Cell Metabolism: “Calorie for Calorie, Dietary Fat Restriction Results in More Body Fat Loss Than Carbohydrate Restriction in People With Obesity”
- International Journal of Molecular Sciences: “Potential Health Benefits of Olive Oil and Plant Polyphenols”