Academy-Award-Winning Movie Snacks
Don't let that blockbuster blow your diet
By Denise Mann
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Ah, the movies: The romance, the adventure ... the calories!
For many film buffs, a movie just isn't a movie without a tub of buttery popcorn or a jumbo-sized box of Raisinets. But these cinematic treats can turn your daily calorie count into something more terrifying than the latest Stephen King flick.
But don't swear off those blockbusters just yet. Whether you're watching at the theater or from the comfort of your couch, there are healthy ways to have your movies and eat, too.
The Popcorn Report
A few years ago, the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) made headlines when it released a report that maligned movie-theater popcorn as full of artery-clogging fat.
"Immediately there were changes," says Jayne Hurley, RD, a nutritionist with the Washington-based CSPI. "Many theaters switched to healthier oil within weeks, but through the years they have gone back to old unhealthy coconut oil," Hurley says.
Hurley gives coconut oil an XXX rating when it comes to health. Sure, she says, "a theater or two may be popping their popcorn in peanut oil -- which gets a PG rating because it may be high in calories, but it won't clog the arteries like coconut oil and hydrogenated oil," she says.
But Hurley is pessimistic about the chances of finding healthy snacks at your local cinema chain.
"You may find a theater or two doing something innovative like offering soft serve frozen yogurt," she says. "But I think you are going to be faced with gigantic boxes of candy and gigantic tubs of popcorn that may be popped in highly saturated coconut oil."
Theater industry representatives say there have been a few healthy changes, and more may be coming in the future. For example, AMC Theatres and Russell Stover have co-branded a sugar-free candy being sold at AMC concession counters.
"These are available now," says Rick King, spokesman for AMC Theaters, based in Kansas City, Mo. Though he knew of no other healthier-food options now in the pipeline at AMC, "we are always looking," he tells WebMD.
At Regal Entertainment Group, officials say an earlier experiment with healthier foods got a poor reception from theatergoers. But they haven't given up on them.
"In the past, we experimented with healthier alternatives at concession stands, including yogurt-covered pretzels and raisins. But they didn't sell well, so we discontinued them," explains Dick Westerling, senior vice president of marketing at Regal Entertainment Group in Knoxville, Tenn.
"We are considering other health-oriented foods and will experiment again, and if consumers will embrace the products and purchase them, we will continue doing so," he says. "But first we must do a test to see how well they sell." Westerling said he could not comment on what the new healthy snacks might be.
Do It Yourself
So for now, what's a movie- and munchie-lover to do?
Your best health bet, according to Hurley, is to make your own snacks. "If you bring it from home, you have portioned it out into a reasonable size so when you eat it, it's gone and that's it," she says.
(Keep in mind that many movie theaters discourage bringing your own snacks. So check with the manager -- or at least be discreet.)
Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist at Oschner Clinic's Elmwood Cardiovascular Health and Fitness Center in New Orleans, suggests making your own microwave popcorn. She even offers a healthy recipe: "Place 3 tablespoons of kernels in brown bag, roll it up and pop it in the microwave, then add spray butter (and) Parmesan cheese or salt," she says. "It has about or 80 calories, and the spray butter helps the seasoning stick so it tastes great, too."
"If you just love movie theater popcorn and feel it's not the same if you bring your own, split a small or kiddie popcorn with whomever you go with," Kimball says.
But remember that while most home-popped microwave popcorns say about two cups constitute a single serving, a small movie theater package contains an average of 7 cups and around 500 calories!
And asking for butter on your popcorn is just adding insult to injury, Hurley says.
Of course, you can always skip the popcorn altogether.
"Bring a [small] Ziploc bag of mixed nuts," suggests Kimball. "Grapes are real easy. And string cheese is easy to bring, and peeling it gives you something to do with your hands while you are watching the movie."
If you can't bring your own, "a lot of theaters offer snacks where you use a scoop, so opt for the Oriental rice or cracker mix, if it's available, because it is low in fat and calories," Kimball says. "And if there are nuts, it adds healthy fats and some protein."