Movie Snacks: The Ugly Diet Truth

What you need to know about movie popcorn and other movie snacks.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on February 25, 2010
5 min read

Headed to the movies this weekend? If you’re planning to snack, beware.

For many a moviegoer, the popcorn and candy are part of the whole cinematic experience. But they may derail your diet if you go overboard.

But with a little creativity and planning, you can nosh without terminating your calorie budget. Here's how.

The nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) first blew the whistle on movie theater popcorn in a 1994 report that showed movie theater popcorn as being full of artery-clogging fat.

"Immediately, there were changes," says Jayne Hurley, RD, a CSPI nutritionist. "Many theaters switched to healthier oil within weeks, but through the years they have gone back to old unhealthy coconut oil," Hurley says.

The CSPI revisited the popcorn issue again in 2009 – and things seem to have gone from bad to worse.

Movie theater popcorn contains anywhere from 400 to 1,200 calories, not to mention one to three days' worth of artery-clogging saturated fat and a whopping 1,500 milligrams of sodium.

And if the intrepid concession stand employee manages to up-sell you (say by adding some candy or sugary soda to go with that popcorn), then your calories will keep on going Up.

The latest report updates the organization's infamous 1994 exposé with new nutritional information on the movie snacks offered by America's three largest movie chains: Regal, AMC, and Cinemark.

“The biggest change is that the third largest theater chain – Cinemark -- is popping their popcorn in heart-healthy canola oil, while the other two are still using coconut oil, which means you're getting an amazing amount of saturated fat in popcorn,” Hurley tells WebMD.

Hurley gives coconut oil an XXX rating when it comes to health.

“Cinemark deserves credit for switching from one of the worst oils to one of the best, but it still ain't diet food,” she says. “It is not kind to your waistline even though may be kind to your heart."

WebMD reached out to several theater industry representatives to see if they have any plans to offer healthier snacking alternatives to moviegoers. Andy DiOrio, a spokesman for AMC Theaters, based in Kansas City, Mo, declined to comment. Regal Entertainment Group did not return phone calls.

Some movie houses now offer flavoring packets to sprinkle on your popcorn, but popcorn connoisseurs should beware, Hurley says.

“The big problem with these packets is that they look innocent, but they are really just salt, and some flavors may have trans fat in them, she says. Trans fats are created when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. Trans fats are known to increase levels of low density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels and lower levels of high density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good”) cholesterol levels.

“These add insult to injury in terms of sodium because they already salt the popcorn when they pop it,” Hurley says.

A marquis that lists calories -- instead of show times -- may really give moviegoers An Education in healthy movie snacks, says Scott Kahan, MD, co-director of the George Washington University Weight Management Program in Washington, D.C

“Now that would be eye-catching,” Kahan says. Unlike chain restaurants in certain areas of the country, movie theaters are not required to post calories. “If this were ever to be mandated, then they would have to reformulate their menus to include healthy options and avoid sticker shock," Kahan says.

But until that happens, Kahan says your best bet is to bring your own treats to the movies. “You can pop a 100-calorie popcorn bag that is almost fat free and much lower in calories than what you can get in the theater,” Kahan says.

Keep in mind that many movie theaters discourage bringing your own snacks, so check with the manager.

If you don’t bring your own, avoid heaping on the free fixings. “It doesn’t take a whole lot to make popcorn taste pretty good,” Kahan says. “Get popcorn without butter, and while salt is good, a little less salt is also good."

But what if you crave a little something sweet with your flicks?

"Share M & M’s or another candy instead of getting your own and right off the bat you are consuming less calories,” Kahan says. Thirsty? "Get a diet soda or a water instead or regular soda."

And never arrive hungry. “If you arrive at the movies on an empty stomach, it will be much harder to satisfy yourself, and you will eat a lot more,” Kahan says. “Having a meal or a healthy snack before can be helpful.”

Many movie 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 Molly Kimball, RD, a nutritionist at Oschner Clinic's Elmwood Cardiovascular Health and Fitness Center in New Orleans.

"If you are going to eat dinner in the movies, you get lots of what you 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," Hurley says.

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," Kimball says. "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 says. "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 so awed by the special effects of James Cameron’s Avatar or so moved by actress Gabourey Sidibe's portrayal of an illiterate and pregnant teenager in Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire. "We get to the bottom of whatever we are eating, whether a tub of popcorn or a bag of chips, even if our intention is not to do that, because we are not paying attention when we are watching a movie," Hurley says.

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.