Popcorn has been enjoyed as a snack for centuries, way before movie theaters made it popular. Luckily, you can eat a large volume of air-popped popcorn and consume relatively few calories.
Because it’s low in calories, many dieters believe popcorn is also low in carbohydrates. But this is far from the truth. Most of the calories in popcorn come from carbohydrates. Corn is a whole grain, after all.
Carb-rich foods aren’t necessarily bad for you. Even on a low-carb diet, you can enjoy a few handfuls of popcorn without going overboard. The key is to pay close attention to the serving size and minimize added oil, butter, and salt.
Carbs (short for carbohydrates) are macronutrients that your body uses to create energy. Your body needs carbohydrates to function properly. Carbohydrates aren’t bad for you, as long as you consume the right types.
Sugar and refined carbs, like desserts and white breads, are carbohydrates too, but they’re packed with calories and low in nutritional value. The bulk of your carbs should come from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Popcorn is considered a whole grain food.
There are about 30 grams of carbohydrates in a serving of popcorn. A serving of popped popcorn is roughly 4 to 5 cups popped, which is the amount you get from 2 tablespoons of unpopped kernels. A serving of air-popped popcorn contains about 120 to 150 calories.
The exact amount of carbohydrates your body needs will vary depending on your age, activity level, and overall health.
The Mayo Clinic recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your daily calories come from carbohydrates. That’s the equivalent of about 225 to 325 grams of carbs per day for someone on a 2,000 calorie per day diet.
At 30 carbohydrates per serving, popcorn only uses up between 9 and 13 percent of your daily allotted amount of carbohydrates. In other words, having one serving of popcorn won’t even come close to putting you over your daily limit.
Fiber is a complex carbohydrate. Complex carbohydrates are less processed, and more slowly digested than simple carbohydrates, like refined sugar. Fiber promotes bowel regularity and helps to control cholesterol.
It can help you maintain your weight, and may even prevent type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular issues. It plays an important role in long-term health.
A serving of popcorn contains about 6 grams of fiber. For reference, men under 50 years of age should eat 38 grams of fiber per day and women under 50 should have 25 grams. If you’re over the age of 50, you should eat about 30 grams per day if you’re a man, and 21 grams if you’re a woman.
Moderately low-carb diets usually consist of 100 to 150 grams of carbs per day. You can still enjoy a serving of popcorn while on a low-carb diet. The fiber content will help keep you full and the volume might prevent you from giving in to cravings for cake and cookies.
If you do choose to eat popcorn as your snack, you may have to minimize other sources of carbohydrates for that day.
Since popcorn has only a little protein and very few vitamins and minerals, it may not be the wisest choice as a regular snack on a low-carb diet, but can certainly be enjoyed on occasion.
Pouring on the butter or adding too much salt can cancel out the healthy benefits of popcorn.
Movie theater popcorn, for example, contains very high amounts of unhealthy saturated or trans fats, and lots of calories. Limit this style of popcorn to a rare treat or consider sharing a small portion with a friend.
To reap the health benefits of popcorn, try popping your own kernels at home. If you pop it in the microwave, you don’t need to use any oil or butter to make it pop.
You can’t lower the number of carbs in popcorn by cooking it at home, but you’ll have better control over the amount of fat, sodium, and calories.
Homemade microwave popcorn
You’ll need a microwave-safe bowl with a vented food cover to make homemade microwave popcorn:
- Put 1/3 cup of popcorn kernels in the bowl, and cover with the vented cover.
- Microwave for a few minutes, or until there are a couple seconds between hearing pops.
- Use oven gloves or hot pads to remove the bowl from the microwave, since it will be very hot.
Homemade stove top popcorn
Another option is to cook popcorn kernels on the stove top. You will need some type of high-smoke point oil, but you can control the amount and type of oil you use.
- Heat 2 to 3 tablespoons of oil (coconut, peanut, or canola oil work best) in a 3-quart saucepan.
- Put 1/3 cup popcorn kernels in the saucepan and cover with a lid.
- Shake and move the pan gently back and forth over the burner.
- Remove the pan from the heat once the popping slows down to a few seconds between pops and dump the popcorn carefully into a wide bowl.
- Add salt to taste (and in moderation). Other healthy flavoring options include smoked paprika, nutritional yeast, chili pepper, curry powder, cinnamon, cumin, and grated cheese.
These recipes make about 8 cups, or 2 servings of popcorn.
Popcorn does contain carbs, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One-fifth of the carbohydrates in popcorn are in the form of dietary fiber, which is good for your overall health. Popcorn is a good example of a high-volume, low-calorie whole grain. If cooked correctly, it makes a healthy snack.
The smartest approach to any diet is not eliminating whole food groups like carbohydrates. Instead, make sure you’re eating healthy carbs like whole grains and fresh produce. Limit the amount of carbohydrates you eat from sugar and processed grains.
There’s no such thing as a “low-carb” version of popcorn. So, if you’re going to have popcorn, measure out your own serving and opt for the all natural, butter-, and salt-free varieties. Or pop your own in the microwave or on the stove top.