Popcorn is the perfect treat when you're watching the latest blockbuster, but this crunchy grain can also be a healthy everyday snack. The average American consumes 56 quarts of popcorn a year, and unsalted varieties offer several perks to your health. A natural whole-grain snack, unsalted popcorn keeps your heart and digestive system healthy, and may protect against cancer and heart disease.
Calories and Fat
If you want a filling snack that's low in calories, unsalted popcorn is a tasty option. Three cups of air-popped popcorn provide 93 calories and only 1 gram of fat. Popcorn made with vegetable oil has 120 calories and 7 grams of fat, but 5 grams are heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Home-popped, unsalted popcorn is a much healthier choice than movie popcorn, which is high in calories. One large tub of movie popcorn contains approximately 1,650 calories. The butter and oil in movie popcorn are also high in saturated and trans fats, two harmful fats that may contribute to heart disease.
Saying “no” to the salt shaker makes your popcorn a heart-healthy treat. Sodium maintains water balance in the body, but too much of this essential mineral increases your risk for high blood pressure. To keep your heart healthy, consume less than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. Three cups of unsalted, air-popped popcorn provide only 2 milligrams of sodium. A large bucket of popcorn at the movie theater contains up to 1,500 milligrams of sodium.
Fiber is a unusual carbohydrate, because it passes through the body completely undigested. A high-fiber diet promotes good digestive health, controls blood cholesterol levels and may reduce your risk of heart disease and diabetes. To reap these benefits, consume at least 25 grams of fiber a day. Three cups of unsalted popcorn provide 3.5 grams of fiber, or 14 percent of your recommended daily intake. Add an extra 3 grams of fiber to your snack by mixing one-fourth cup of peanuts into your popcorn bowl.
The hard outer shells of the popcorn kernels are a rich source of polyphenols, chemicals that may play a role in cancer prevention and heart disease. A study by University of Scranton researchers concluded that popcorn contains more polyphenols than many fruits and vegetables. This is great news for popcorn fans, but you shouldn't pass over fruits and vegetables for more of this crunchy snack. Research still needs to determine if the human body absorbs all of these beneficial polyphenols.
- North Dakota State University: Prairie Food: Popcorn is a Popular Snack
- USDA: How Many Grain Foods Are Needed Daily?
- USDA Nutrient Database: Air-popped Popcorn
- Colorado State University: Popcorn -- A Hit or Miss?
- Ashworth College: The Health Danger at the Movie Theater
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Boost Your Health With Fiber
- USDA Nutrient Database: Unsalted popcorn, oil-popped
- USDA Nutrient Database: Raw peanuts
- Womenshealth.gov: Don't Forget to Eat Your Fruits, Veggies ... and Popcorn?
- Harvard University: Fiber: Start Roughing It!
Jennifer Dlugos is a Boston-based writer with more than 10 years of experience in the health-care and wellness industries. She is also an award-winning filmmaker and screenwriter who teaches screenwriting and film production classes throughout New England. Dlugos holds a master's degree in dietetics.