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The Nutrition Low-Down on Popcorn

Is the popped stuff good for you, and can you eat it if you’re on a specific diet?

red bowl popcorn

  

Popcorn has a reputation for being an indulgent midnight snack for movie-addicts and partiers. But (surprise!) so long as you don’t douse it in butter and caramel sauce, popcorn is actually a fiber-rich, antioxidant-packed, low-calorie snack. Let’s investigate popcorn’s nutrition profile.

Wait, so is popcorn healthy?

You probably already know this, but popcorn comes from corn. Heat up the kernels of corn, and thanks to their water content, the golden nuggets explode into the puffy, scrumptious snack.

Corn is considered a whole grain—and that’s true even after it’s been popped. And guess what? Whole grains are pretty healthy! Unlike refined grain snacks (like white bread and crackers) that have had the entire grain seed removed, whole grain snacks still contain seeds, which is where lots of vitamins and minerals (like iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium) are stored. This makes whole grain snacks like popcorn (!) seriously nutrient-dense.

In fact, whole-grain consumption has been linked to a slew of health benefits, including reduced inflammation, decreased risk of heart disease and stroke, improved digestion, reduced cholesterol, and more. Fun!

So, is popcorn healthy? Ultimately, that comes down to how you prepare it. As a general rule, air-popped popcorn—which is made using just air and heat—is healthy. But, popcorn prepared with oils, fat-filled ingredients, and/or sugar is less healthy (duh!).

For instance, most microwavable popcorn is made with partially hydrogenated oils, which are full of trans (read: bad-for-you) fat. (For healthier picks, check out our list of best and worst microwaveable popcorn brands.)

And, most movie theatre popcorn is loaded with salt, butter, and sugar, which turn the usually low-calorie, low-fat snack into a fatty calorie bomb.

If you’re a flavor-feen, the healthiest option is to add cinnamon, a pinch of salt, some parmesan cheese, a teaspoon of coconut oil, or some dried spices to an air-popped serving.

What’s the nutrition breakdown of popcorn, exactly?

popcorn nutrition profile
Rachel Linder/Eat This, Not That!

The nutritional stats on popcorn tell you all you need to know. Here’s the nutritional content of one 3-cup serving of air-popped (no added sugar, grease, or salt) popcorn, according to the USDA:

  • Calories: 93
  • Fat: 1.1 g
  • Sodium: 1.9 mg
  • Carbohydrates: 19 g
  • Fiber: 3.5 g
  • Sugar: 0.2 g
  • Protein: 3 g

Basically, there’s not much to popcorn except for a little bit of protein, a tiny bit of fat, and a moderate amount of carbs.

The health benefits of popcorn

The main perk of popcorn is just how filling it can be. While most very low-fat foods aren’t super satiating, popcorn surprisingly is. That’s because it contains 3.5-whopping-grams of insoluble fiber (about 14 percent of recommended daily fiber intake for women and about 12 percent for men), which helps you feel full, longer. For comparison’s sake, that’s similar to the amount of fiber you’d get from eating a large banana or red apple.

For people trying to lose weight, consider this: One 2012 study published in the Nutrition Journal found that 15 calories of popcorn were just as satisfying as 150 calories of potato chips. Pretty wild, right?

Beyond just being high in vitamins and minerals, a 2019 study published in the journal Antioxidants showed that popcorn contains super high amounts of an antioxidant called polyphenol—even more than most fruits and veggies. Antioxidants’ main claim to fame is that they help neutralize something in the body called “free radicals,” which, in excess, speed up aging and increase the risk of disease. Can popcorn replace your anti-aging creams? Probably not. But it also can’t hurt.

I’m on a diet . . . can I eat popcorn?

It depends. Popcorn, which comes from a grain, isn’t allowed on grain-free diets like paleo or Whole30.

But, with only 19 grams of carbohydrates—and only 15 grams of net carbohydrates—popcorn is allowed on the keto diet, and easily fits into most other low-carb diets, too. The two exceptions to this are the South Beach and Atkins diets, both of which forbid the snack during the first phase.

Popcorn is also not an animal product (lol, duh), so vegans and vegetarians can snack freely.

As for whether or not those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance can eat popcorn? It’s complicated. Popcorn technically contains zero gluten. But, it does contain a protein called maize prolamins, which has been shown to cause an inflammatory response in people with severe gluten intolerance. Sigh.

Those who are allergic to wheat, soy, and rice may also be at risk of having an allergic reaction to popcorn. The only way to know for sure if you have a corn/popcorn sensitivity is to ask your healthcare provider to perform an allergy test.

The takeaway on popcorn

Popcorn may look and crunch like an unhealthy snack, but it’s actually pretty darn healthy so long as you opt for the air-popped, plain kind.

Is chowing down on an entire bag of movie theatre popcorn every now and then the worst thing in the world? No. But it’s not the kind of snack you want to be indulging in every time you plant yourself on the couch.

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Diabetes and Eye Problems

photo of man reading glucose level meter manual

How Diabetes Affects Your Eyes

The main problem is high blood sugar (glucose). Diabetes means your body doesn’t make or use insulin correctly, which raises blood sugar. When this first happens, it can change the level of fluid in parts of the eye that help you focus. You might have no symptoms, or your vision might be blurry for a few days or weeks. It usually returns to normal once your treatment plan brings your glucose levels back down.

photo of retina blood vessels

Long-Term Effects of High Glucose

Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage the very small blood vessels at the back of your eyes. The vessels leak fluid and cause swelling, pressure, and other problems. If your glucose levels are high enough, the damage can start before signs of diabetes show up in other parts of your body. This can lead to four diabetes-related eye problems: retinopathy, macular edema, glaucoma, and cataracts.

photo of early diabetic retinopathy

Early Diabetic Retinopathy

In early nonproliferative diabetic neuropathy, or NPDR, blood vessels bulge and leak into the inner lining of the back of the eye (known as the retina). Your nerve endings might swell, too. You may not have symptoms at first. Talk to your doctor about eye health if you have diabetes or you know your blood sugar is high. It’s important to start managing it early.

photo of detached retina

Advanced Diabetic Retinopathy

Here, the blood vessels at the back of your eye start to close.  New ones grow in the retina, but they’re damaged. They can leak into the vitreous, the jelly-like substance in the middle of your eye. You might see dark spots or streaks that seem to float through your line of vision. If you don’t get treatment right away, scar tissue may form. This could separate the retina from the back of your eye, which is serious.

photo of diabetic macular edema

Diabetic Macular Edema

Retinopathy sometimes leads to fluid in an important part of the retina called the macula. You need it to drive a car, recognize faces, and read. When your macula swells, your vision could blur and you may lose some or all of your sight. About half of people who get diabetic retinopathy will also get DME.   

photo of eye pressure test for glaucoma

Glaucoma

There are several types, but they all put pressure on the optic nerve at the back of your eye that connects to your brain. You may not have symptoms at first, or you might start to lose your side vision. But you don’t notice because it happens so slowly.  If you don’t treat it, the pressure can lead to permanent vision loss.

photo of cataract

Cataracts

When the lens of your eye looks cloudy, it’s called a cataract. This blocks light, and everything looks hazy. Poor control of blood sugar can speed up the process. You’re more likely to get cataracts with diabetes — and you’ll probably get them at a younger age. Surgery can replace the cloudy lens with a clear artificial one, but diabetic retinopathy sometimes gets worse afterward.

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Diagnosis of Diabetic Eye Disease

If your doctor thinks you have diabetic eye problems, they’ll test your vision and measure the pressure in your eyes. Medicated eye drops will widen your pupils — the part of your eye that lets light in — so they can look at the back of your eye. The doctor might inject a dye into your arm. The dye can show any leakage in the small blood vessels of your eye. Your vision might be blurry for a few hours after the exam. 

photo of man walking dog

Early Treatment

Your doctor might suggest more frequent eye checkups to make sure your condition doesn’t get worse. The only treatment at this point might be diabetes management. Typically, you’ll keep track of and try to control your blood sugar, cholesterol, and blood pressure. Prescription medication, exercise, eating better, and quitting smoking can help. 

photo of laser therapy

Laser Treatment

Panretinal photocoagulation uses a laser to destroy areas of your retina where abnormal blood vessels have grown. Focal treatment, which is less common, uses a laser to seal blood vessels and stop them from leaking and growing. These surgeries can keep vision loss from getting worse.

photo of treatment for macular degeneration

Anti-VEGF Drugs

The doctor injects shots of medicine into the jelly inside your eye. This keeps your eye from growing new blood vessels. Though you tend to need fewer shots over time, it isn’t a cure. You typically need regular shots to maintain results.

photo of eye surgery

Vitrectomy

In the late stages of diabetic retinopathy — if your retina has detached or a lot of blood has leaked into your eye — your doctor may suggest this operation to remove scar tissue, blood, and cloudy fluid inside your eye. Vitrectomy can improve your vision.

Who Gets Diabetic Eye Disease?

The longer you have the disease, the more likely your chances are. Your odds are higher if you don’t have good control of your blood sugar or you have high blood pressure or cholesterol. Your risk is also greater if you smoke.

photo of eye exam

Don’t Wait for Symptoms

When your blood sugar is high or when you start using insulin, you may have blurry vision. There may be damage caused by diabetes even if your vision seems normal. That’s why you should get an eye exam at least once a year.

photo of man flying kite

See Your Doctor

Get to an ER right away if you suddenly lose sight (including a “curtain” coming down over your vision), see flashing lights, double vision, or severe eye pain or pressure. Make an appointment with your eye doctor as soon as you can if you have these:

  • Blurry or hazy vision
  • Spots, floaters, or shadows
  • Waviness or distortion of straight lines