Is Popcorn Healthy? Here's What Dietitians Think

Here are the nutritional benefits and downsides of popcorn, and dietitians' takes on whether it's a healthy snack.

Bowl of Popcorn
Photo: Getty Images

There's a lot to love about popcorn. It's crunchy, satisfying, and oh-so-versatile. The whole grain is also a classic snack, as it's often enjoyed at wholesome events from county fairs to movie nights. However, if you've got nutrition on the mind, you might catch yourself wondering, "Is popcorn healthy?"

It depends. Popcorn can be prepared in many ways, which can affect the nutrition of the end product. This includes different cooking methods (i.e., stovetop, microwave, or air popper machine), types of oils used to cook the popcorn, and additional seasonings (i.e., salt, powdered cheese, garlic powder, butter, etc.).

Needless to say, the answer to whether popcorn's healthy may not seem obvious. If you'd like a cheat sheet on popcorn nutrition, find the main pros and cons of the food, below.

Popcorn Nutrition

In case you didn't know, popcorn results from corn kernels that have expanded or, well, popped. Corn kernels (and therefore, popcorn) are a type of whole grain, which happen to be chock-full of satiating fiber, according to Charmaine Jones, M.S., R.D.N., L.D.N., registered dietitian nutritionist and founder of Food Jonezi. Popcorn also offers modest amounts of essential vitamins and minerals, including folate, vitamin A, potassium, and magnesium, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

However, as mentioned earlier, the nutrient profile of popcorn can vary greatly depending on its preparation. But for a general idea on nutrient break down, check out the nutritional profile of three cups plain air-popped popcorn (~24 grams) — which equals one serving, according to Jones — based on data from the USDA:

  • 93 calories
  • 3 grams protein
  • 1 gram fat
  • 18 grams carbohydrates
  • 4 grams fiber
  • < 1 gram sugar

Benefits of Popcorn

One more time for the folks in the back: There are myriad ways to prepare popcorn, so whether or not popcorn is healthy depends on multiple factors. But overall, popcorn — specifically, the plain air-popped kind — is healthy, based on the benefits below.

Increases Satiety

If you're on a mission to stave off hanger between meetings, reach for popcorn. ICYMI above, popcorn is teeming with fiber, a type of carbohydrate. And fiber helps increase satiety, or the feeling of fullness and satisfaction, according to Jones. Popcorn also acts like a sponge in your gut, where it soaks up water and expands. "This causes the stomach receptors to release hormones that [tell your brain] you're full," explains Jones. In turn, you'll be more likely to feel satiated for a long time after noshing on popcorn.

Promotes Regular Bowel Movements

As mentioned, popcorn is a fiber-rich food. It's especially high in insoluble fiber, which attracts water in the gut, says Jones. This increases the bulk of your stool, thereby decreasing the time it takes to move through the gut, she adds. This can be a game changer if you're constantly backed up, as it can help keep you regular and potentially prevent constipation, notes Paula Doebrich, M.P.H, R.D.N., registered dietitian and founder of Happea Nutrition.

Reduces Blood Pressure and Cholesterol

Although most of the fiber in popcorn is insoluble, it contains some of the soluble kind too, says Jones. Soluble fiber, as the name suggests, dissolves in water in the gut, and this creates a gel-like substance that may help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol. Soluble fiber binds to bile (a fluid that contains cholesterol) forcing the bile to exit through your stool rather than get absorbed by your body, as Shape previously reported. This decreases overall cholesterol absorption in your body, thereby decreasing high blood cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease.

Downsides of Popcorn

As with all good things in life, popcorn isn't perfect; It has some drawbacks too. Here are a few popcorn disadvantages to keep in mind:

May Cause Digestive Issues

Despite its benefits for digestion, popcorn can actually cause GI problems in some folks, especially when eaten in high amounts. The high fiber content of popcorn may lead to constipation, especially if you're already prone to the issue, says Jones. This can happen any time you quickly eat a lot of fiber (from any food) without increasing your intake of water. The reason: "As fiber travels through the digestive tract, it needs fluid to plump up and pass smoothly," explains Jones. So, if you usually don't eat a lot of fiber, increase your popcorn intake slowly and be sure to drink up.

Limited Essential Nutrients

Sure, popcorn contains fiber and a few vitamins and minerals…but that's about it. That being said, replacing most of your diet with popcorn can make it harder for you to get all the nutrients you need. Since popcorn increases fullness, eating too much per day might cause you to consume less variety in your diet, says Jones. This can limit your intake of other essential nutrients, such as protein, healthy fats, and vitamin C. So, you'll want to think of popcorn as a side or snack, rather than the main event.

Not All Popcorn Is Equal

Back to the factor of how popcorn is prepared. Unlike air popping popcorn, cooking popcorn on the stovetop often calls for oil and butter, which adds calories and fat. Similarly, movie theater and microwavable popcorn is typically made with added salt and butter, says Jones. Depending on the product or recipe, other ingredients such as sugar and powdered cheese might also increase the sodium, carb, or fat content of the snack, ultimately changing the overall nutritional content.

It's worth noting that all foods have a place in a healthy diet. But if you need or want to limit certain ingredients, it's helpful to stay mindful of how the popcorn is prepared.

So, Is Popcorn a Healthy Snack?

In short, yes, popcorn is a healthy snack. "Generally speaking, all foods can be a part of a healthy lifestyle, and it comes down to enjoying the less nutrient-dense foods in moderation," says Doebrich. In the case of popcorn, "it's more about what you consume it with [rather] than the corn itself," she adds.

So, if you're looking for the most nutritionally dense choice, making popcorn at home is the way to go, notes Doebrich. This way, you can control how it's prepared and what additional ingredients are used. You can use an air popper machine, if you're lucky enough to own one, or use a standard pot on the stovetop. For the healthiest version, you'll use little to no oil, but adding oil is A-okay as the fat can help increase satiety, says Doebrich. If you decide to use oil, go for an option with a higher smoke point, such as avocado or canola oil, she says. "Fats with a lower smoke point, such as coconut oil or butter, may not be ideal for the high heat [that is produced] when making popcorn on the stovetop," she explains.

As for the flavorings and toppings, use 1/2 teaspoon of salt for three cups of popped popcorn, suggests Doebrich. If you're watching your sodium intake, you can skip it completely or use lower sodium alternatives, such as kosher salt. Another option is to use salt-free seasonings such as spices (think: garlic powder, chili powder, dried herbs) for added flavor sans excess sodium, adds Doebrich.

If you're shopping for a bag of pre-made popcorn in the store, try to choose salt-free or low-salt options, recommends Jones. You could even add your own seasonings to plain store-bought popcorn for a quick and healthy snack. (Pro tip: Lightly spray or sprinkle the popcorn with water so that the spices and seasonings stick.)

And if you do want to enjoy some microwave or movie theater popcorn? That's totally fine, says Doebrich. "There's no reason to restrict occasional treats," she says — since, again, all foods can be part of a balanced diet. If you're unsure what "occasional" looks like for you, chat with your doc or dietitian for personalized guidance.

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