Cinema popcorn highlighted as a nutritional hazard (and how to avoid it)

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Over the weekend the radio was on and I caught an item about the apparent hazards of popcorn. The Food Standards Agency in the UK has, it seems, launched a bit of a blitz against the snack foods and drink available in cinema foyers (see here for a report regarding this) and popcorn is firmly in its sights. Apparently, a large serving of popcorn (sweet or salty) can contain 1800 calories – roughly equivalent to the daily calories needs of an adult man.

I am glad that pop corn is getting the negative attention it, in my view, deserves. For a long time plain popcorn has been promoted as a sort of ideal snack on the basis of its natural low-fat, low-calorie nature. However, let’s get this straight – popcorn in really not a very nutritious food (it’s more fodder than food). And in addition, it’s a food that is easy to over-eat. Here’s why:

Science has revealed two things that help determine how satisfying a food is. They are:

1. Its protein content – the more protein it contains, the more satisfying it is.

2. Its glycaemic index (the extent to which it disrupts blood sugar levels) – the lower the GI, the more sating a food tends to be.

Popcorn is both low in protein and relatively high glycaemic index. And perhaps rather predictably popcorn generally fails to ‘hit the spot’ in terms of quelling the appetite.

But that’s not all: popcorn bought in cinemas tends to be eaten in front of films. So now we have another problem – ‘mindless eating’. If our attention is on a film playing out in front of us, it’s almost impossible to be aware of and respond to clues regarding how much we’ve eaten. In such a situation, it is extremely easy to consume more than is required.

The non-sating nature of popcorn, and the fact that it can be consumed in a mindless way, help explain how individuals can eat a bucket of the stuff the size of their heads without really being aware that they’ve eaten anything at all.

I don’t recommend popcorn as a food, but I don’t recommend much of what is made available in cinema foyers either. I like going to the cinema, and when I do, I employ the same tactic I use when I go food shopping – I make sure I’m not hungry.

If, before departing for the cinema I become aware of some peckishness, my tactic is to down a fistful or two of nuts. This protein-rich, low glycaemic index food tends to do a good job of taking the edge of an over-eager appetite. For me, this simple tactic allows me to resist the cinema popcorn, pick and mix and hot dogs with ease.

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