Don't let that blockbuster blow your diet
By Denise Mann
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
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."
If you're watching a movie at home, eating healthy gets a lot easier. A few good options include the air-popped or light microwave popcorn, fresh fruit, and whole-wheat crackers with low-fat cheese, Kimball says.
But remember that even when you're eating healthy snacks, portion size counts. So measure out those portions before you turn on the DVD player.
Something's Got to Give
If you have to snack, try giving up that high calorie beverage that you normally drink with your popcorn or Junior Mints, says Kimball.
Opt for diet soda instead of a super-sized, super-sugary sodas or Slurpees (or, if you're in a New Orleans theater, a daiquiri -- which has about 700 calories a glass!) she says.
"You can also bring in bottled water and bottled juice," the CSPI's Hurley adds. "A lot of drinks come in individual-serving containers."
But what about those of us who like a little something sweet with our flicks?
"If you must have Jujubes or Junior Mints, split it with a friend," Kimball says. And if it's got to be chocolate, consider peanut M&Ms. "They have some nutritional value because peanuts contain good fats and some protein," she says.
Cheaper by the Dozen?
How many times have you been told by a concession stand worker that for a quarter more, you can get large popcorn or a super-sized soda?
"You may be tempted into thinking, 'That's such a good deal,' but it's often double, if not triple, the calories -- not to mention fat," Kimball says.
Dinner at 8?
Many theaters now offer meal-like snacks including chicken tenders, hot dogs, and nachos laden with cheese. But you'll do far better to eat dinner at home or in a restaurant, says Kimball.
"If you are going to eat dinner in the movies, you get lots of what don't need -- namely calories, saturated fat, and sodium -- and not anything of what you do need, such as fruits and veggies and whole grains," says Hurley.
Speaking of things you don't need, consider this revolutionary idea: You don't have to eat anything at all during a movie. Eat a healthy meal or snack beforehand, and you may be able to break the movie-snacking habit that's costing you money and calories.
"Eating at the movies is totally a cultural thing," says Kimball. "My clients from other countries say that people here eat everywhere they go. I always try to emphasize what the point of the event is: It's going to the movies, it's about entertainment, not necessarily food."
Hurley agrees. "It's a two-hour time frame, and you don't have to be eating for the whole two hours that you are watching the film," she stresses. "We are facing an obesity epidemic, and part of the problem is that we eat for every occasion."
Worse, Hurley says, is that it's mindless eating because we are focused on Tom Cruise's samurai adventures or Jennifer Aniston's romantic misadventures.
So "we get to the bottom of whatever we are eating, whether a tub of popcorn or a bag of chips, even if intention is not to do that, because we are not paying attention when we are watching a movie," she says.