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Is popcorn a healthy snack?

There’s a lot of conflicting information out there on the subject of popcorn. Some caution of the hazards of indulging in a bag of the stuff, while others tout popcorn as a healthy snack. We’ve got the scoop on whether this tasty treat belongs in your diet.

Three friends eating popcorn and having fun |

Popcorn is a tricky snack because sometimes you can find it on a list of healthy, low-calorie options, and at other times you can read cautionary articles on why you should stay away from the stuff. Toronto-based private practice dietician Stefanie Senior, R.D. lays out the different varieties of popcorn and why its reputation varies so much.


Air-popped popcorn

When popcorn is air popped on its own in a machine, with nothing added to it, it has just 33 calories in 1 cup, explains Senior. Meaning, you can enjoy 3 whole cups for under 100 calories. When you’re on the hunt for a crunchy snack to munch on, that’s a pretty good deal! Especially since popcorn is a source of fibre — which is good for your bowels and helps manage cholesterol and blood sugar levels, points out Senior. In addition, popcorn is considered a whole grain, which means it takes longer to break down and therefore keeps you fuller for longer, she adds.

You might be wondering how a food filled with so many good qualities could be considered “bad.” Well, it all lies in the dressing of the popcorn. Just as with cooking vegetables, something that was originally low in fat and calories can be made high in sugar, calories, fat and sodium if you aren’t careful, explains Senior. So what’s a crunchy-snack-loving gal to do? Senior suggests using 1 to 2 teaspoons of melted butter — or better yet, non-hydrogenated margarine — for each 3 to 4 cups popped. Using 1 to 2 teaspoons of olive oil is also an option. Then top it off with a small pinch of salt or Mrs. Dash (a salt-free seasoning).

If you get tired of popcorn, chow down on these other nutritious microwave snacks >>


Microwave popcorn

Microwave popcorn certainly makes for a quick and easy snack option, but is it a healthy one? That depends, explains Senior. She recommends that a snack be under 200 calories and low in saturated fats and sodium. Taking that into consideration, some bags of popcorn don’t fit the bill. To make the healthiest choice, Senior suggests comparing brands to find the one that’s lowest in fat and sodium — preferably under 5 to 10 per cent — and ensuring you keep your serving size under 200 calories.

Get more ideas for healthy snacks under 200 calories >>


Movie popcorn

The main kind of popcorn that’s been giving what can otherwise be a healthy snack a bad name is movie popcorn. Senior explains that although movie popcorn varies a lot in terms of how many calories you’re getting, the average large size movie theatre variety contains 22 cups of popcorn, has over 1,000 calories and is loaded with fat and sodium. And if you like to top that already flavoured and oiled popcorn with extra butter, you’re adding roughly 150 to 250 calories, plus more fat and sodium, says Senior. If you’re heading to the movies and really want to treat yourself to popcorn, Senior recommends getting a small or kids’ size, not adding extra seasoning or butter and sharing it with a friend if possible.

Making popcorn a healthy snack

Bottom line: Popcorn can be a crunchy, satisfying and healthy snack — you just have to make sure you choose the right kind and serve it up in a well-proportioned way. Once you’ve done that, you can sit back and enjoy!

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