Those big bags of movie theater popcorn are tempting, but are they really that much worse than a generous bowl of homemade, air-popped popcorn? As it turns out, the pitfalls of eating too much popcorn change dramatically when comparing the different forms in which people commonly indulge.
Too much of any kind of food can potentially be harmful, especially when consumed in one sitting. The disadvantages of excessive popcorn consumption depend largely on what type you eat, but even the healthiest types can be a bad idea in truly large amounts.
What Is “Too Much” Popcorn?
Movie theaters are useful measuring sticks for determining what "tons of popcorn" looks like, especially when it comes to supposedly individual servings. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found that a small movie theater popcorn ranges from 8 to 11 cups, depending on the movie theater chain, while a large might be as much as 20 cups.
That 20 cups seems like a good benchmark to determine whether a large amount of popcorn is "too much popcorn" when it comes to your health goals. Chances are, you have a salad or plastic food-storage bowl at home that will easily fill the equivalent of a movie theater large popcorn.
In 2009, CSPI found that a large movie theater popcorn of about 20 cups could contain as many as 1,200 calories, as well as high amounts of fat and sodium. Current figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture bear this conclusion out.
Scarfing Down Movie Theater Popcorn
What popcorn kernels are coated with prior to popping makes a difference in how unhealthy large portions get. If it's a popping medium like coconut oil, the saturated fat will already be excessive — and that's without adding the optional buttery flavoring.
Going for a buttery topping obviously ramps up the calorie count beyond that already-hefty 1,200 count. Depending on whether you use a heavy hand and get to pump it yourself or the theater staff adds the topping, you'll be adding 250 to 500 additional calories. For many people, an entire day's caloric load can be obtained from a single tub of popcorn from the theater.
Read more: Cineplex Popcorn Nutrition
The saturated fat content is also problematic. As CSPI points out, a large serving of popcorn can end up containing what should be three days' worth of saturated fat. It typically comes with up to 60 grams of saturated fat, with additional butter flavoring adding about 9 fat grams per tablespoon.
Along with fat and calories, sodium is a third concern associated with indulging in tons of popcorn at the movies. A large — assuming you don't add any salt at the counter — has up to 980 milligrams of sodium, which is at least one-third of the recommended daily value.
The USDA lists virtually the same figures for movie popcorn, but also calculates the sodium load, when salt is added, at 1,944 milligrams. According to Health.gov's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2,300 milligrams of sodium is the upper limit for what you should consume in a day. This one "snack" is at least 85 percent of that daily allotment.
Calories in Homemade Popcorn?
Making popcorn at home is no guarantee that your popcorn will be healthy. In fact, a typical "butter flavor" microwave popcorn product gets about half of its calories from saturated fats. A supersize serving of homemade popcorn comparable to a large movie popcorn would have about 840 calories, 24 grams of saturated fat and 1,206 milligrams of sodium, according to USDA figures.
For a healthier option, use an air popper instead of a microwave. This simple countertop appliance has an internal fan, which forces hot air toward the kernels, enabling them to pop. Most important, hot air poppers allow you to use kernels that haven't been coated in palm oil or a similar fatty coating.
Even with a 20-cup serving of air-popped popcorn, there are 620 calories in homemade popcorn, along with 2 grams of saturated fat and 12 milligrams of sodium. Of course, this healthy bottom line only holds if you avoid adding butter, oil or salt!
What Are the Benefits?
A 20-cup serving of air-popped popcorn can give you all the fiber you need for the day, according to the USDA. Popcorn's other nutrients include high levels of iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc.
So is a supersize portion of air-popped popcorn OK once in a while? That partly depends on your other meals. While you won't have blown your calorie, fat or sodium budgets, you'll have consumed 124 grams of carbohydrates, which can be an issue if you're trying to control your blood sugar.
Read more: Can People With Diabetes Eat Popcorn?
Too much fiber can also be "too much of a good thing" at times. Balance out the fiber content of popcorn by going easy on roughage for the rest of the day to avoid cramping and gas, warns [Mayo Clinic](https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/high-fiber-foods/art-20050948 Image Embedded Media Step Heading Modules Slideshow).
Better still, control your impulse to supersize even unadorned popcorn. With a suggested popcorn serving size of about 3 cups, you'll have a snack that's under 100 calories, yet high in fiber, while remaining virtually fat- and sodium-free.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest: "Movie Theaters Fill Buckets and Bellies"
- USDA: "Popcorn, Oil-Popped, White Popcorn, Salt Added"
- USDA: "Popcorn Microwave Regular (Butter) Flavor"
- USDA: "Popcorn Air-Popped"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020"
- Mayo Clinic: "Chart of High-Fiber Foods"