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Is Popcorn Healthy? 9 Reasons You Need Popcorn in Your Diet

Have you ever asked yourself "is popcorn healthy?" If so, we've got some great news for you—yes it is. Eating popcorn is one of the healthiest snack habits you can have. It's filled with fiber, has more antioxidants than some fruits and vegetables, and may even help fight cancer.

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Popcorn could be the perfect healthy snack

When you wonder: “Is popcorn healthy?” you have to narrow down the type of popcorn you’re munching on. If it’s air-popped popcorn—not the fatty, butter-drenched stuff you get at the movies—then you’ll be happy about the answer. Read on to learn more about why air-popped popcorn is actually a healthy snack option, and why you can add it to your list of healthy snacks for adults.

Bags of popcorn in red- and yellow-striped containers.iStock/PeopleImages

It has few calories—if you pop it the right way

The healthiest type of popcorn is air-popped, which only has 30 calories per cup. Meanwhile, the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that the medium and large popcorn sizes at Regal theaters each had 1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat. A large popcorn at AMC wasn’t much better: 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. At home, you can use a hot air popper, like this Cuisinart Hot Air Popcorn Maker or Colonel Popper Microwave Popcorn Popper Bowl to make your own.

Man and woman curled up on the couch together eating from a bowl of popcorn.iStock/OJO_Images

Popcorn could be healthier than fruits and vegetables

Yep, you read that right. According to a 2019 analysis in the journal Antioxidants, popcorn is loaded with polyphenols, compounds found in plants that act as antioxidants and reduce inflammation. Polyphenols are heavily diluted in fruits and vegetables, which are 90 percent water. Yet popcorn is made up of about 4 percent water, so the polyphenols are more highly concentrated, especially in the hulls (the hard shells that get stuck in your teeth). One serving of popcorn can contain up to 300 mg of polyphenols, according to a prior study from the University of Scranton, which would account for 13 percent of the average American’s daily intake. Fruit accounts for 255 mg of polyphenols per day, and vegetables bring in about 218 mg per day. That said, popcorn doesn’t have many other vitamins and nutrients, so it can’t completely replace fruits and veggies in your diet.

Bowl of yellow, buttery popcorn in a blue- and white-striped bowl.iStock/freemixer

Popcorn may help fight cancer

One of the many powers of polyphenols, like those found in popcorn, is their ability to block enzymes that cancers need to grow and, in doing so, regulate the spread of cancerous cells, notes the American Institute for Cancer Research. The traditional way to reap these health benefits is by eating fruits and vegetables, but the high concentration of polyphenols makes eating popcorn a healthy alternative. Since they can also prevent inflammation and plaque buildup, foods rich in polyphenols may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Replace some of these foods cardiologists never eat with air-popped popcorn.

Bowl of granola and dried blueberries with a spoon in it, resting on top of a wooden cutting board.iStock/Vladislav Nosick

Popcorn gives you your fill of whole grain

Popcorn is one snack that is 100 percent unprocessed whole grain. Just one serving of popcorn such as SkinnyPop Popcorn Original contains more than 70 percent of the recommended daily whole grain intake. Plus, eating more popcorn is one of 30 ways to get more fiber in your diet without even trying.

Woman wearing a white tank sitting on her bed clutching her stomach. iStock/AndreyPopov

Popcorn may help relieve constipation

Since popcorn is all whole grain, its insoluble fiber helps keep your digestive tract in check and prevents constipation. A 3-cup serving contains 3.5 grams of fiber, and a high-fiber diet can help promote intestinal regularity, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Who knew this small snack could make such a huge impact on digestive health?

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It’s the perfect dieting snack

High-fiber foods take more time to digest than non-fibrous foods, so they can keep you fuller longer. Snacking on air-popped popcorn in between meals can make you less tempted by sweets and fatty foods. Just don’t load up on butter and salt. Check out these other healthy snack ideas to keep your diet on track.

Woman helping a younger girl check her blood glucose levels with a glucose meter.iStock/AMR-Imag

Popcorn is diabetic friendly

Even though fiber is listed on food labels under total carbohydrates, it doesn’t have the same effect on blood sugar as refined carbs like white bread. High-fiber foods don’t contain as much digestible carbohydrate, so it slows the rate of digestion and causes a more gradual and lower rise in blood sugar, according to 2015 research in the journal Circulation. 

Tray containing three bowls of popcorn with different toppings, including cinnamon popcorn and sweet seaweed popcorniStock/alamourus

There are endless options for popcorn toppings

You can put way more on popcorn than just butter and salt. Add cinnamon or apple pie spice for a sweet treat, or go spicy with hot sauce, wasabi, or curry. You can also give your snack an Italian flair with grated Parmesan and a dash of olive oil. Basically, anything in your spice rack can add more flavor without very many calories when you’re eating popcorn. Need more inspiration? Try Kernel Season’s Popcorn Seasoning Mini Jars Savory Variety Pack.

Bowl of leafy green spinach in a blue bowl resting on a wooden cutting board and wooden tabletop.iStock/Lecic

Popcorn has more iron than spinach

Not by much, but it’s true: According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 1 ounce (28 grams) of popcorn contains 0.9 mg of iron, while 1 cup of raw spinach (30 grams) has 0.8 mg. These numbers seem small, but adult men only need 8 mg of iron in their diet each day. Adult women, on the other hand, need 18 mg per day (because of the blood they lose during menstruation). Almost 10 percent of women are iron deficient, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So get your fill of iron however you can. Now that you know all about the health benefits of popcorn, check out these other white foods that are healthier than you thought.

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Medically reviewed by Cynthia Sass, MPH, RDN, CSSD, on January 06, 2020