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Eating Popcorn Can Help You Lose Weight — No, Really!

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The ‘80s were a wild time. People were crimping their hair, piling on the blue eyeshadow, and eating only popcorn for all of their meals... Wait, what? Yep, the Popcorn Diet was a real thing — and there's a good chance you tried it back in the day.

Now, it’s making a comeback. Maybe people are inspired by Olivia Pope’s lifestyle — popcorn and red wine for dinner, anyone? — or maybe they’re just looking to eat healthy with foods that actually taste good. But is this diet something that can work in 2017, or is it something that should’ve stayed in the ‘80s? Judge for yourself.

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What is the popcorn diet?

It's as simple as it sounds. To follow the popcorn diet, all you have to do is eat popcorn instead of something else. There are no strict rules about how much popcorn you can eat or what time of day to eat it or anything like that. And you don't have to replace all of your meals with popcorn. These days, the popcorn diet is less of a strict regimen and more about treating popcorn as a diet food. You can use it to replace just one meal or your snacks, but popcorn can’t meet all of your nutritional needs by itself. By combining it with a healthy diet, though — and using it to solve those starving moments in between meals — you can see some real results.

Is popcorn healthy?

Here’s the simple answer: It can be. Nutritionist Lisa Drayer writes for CNN, “plain air-popped kernels [are] a healthy, whole-grain, antioxidant-rich snack food that comes at a pretty low-calorie cost for those who like to mindlessly nibble: A three-cup serving of air-popped popcorn has only 93 calories, 1 gram of fat and close to 4 grams of fiber.”

The Atlantic calls popcorn kernels “nutritional powerhouses,” adding, “popcorn contains more polyphenols, healthy antioxidant compounds than fruits and vegetables.” But not all kinds of popcorn are healthy.

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Is microwave popcorn bad for you?

The healthiest popcorn is air-popped (you can grab an air popper like this one on Amazon, but microwave popcorn isn’t a bad second choice. The TODAY show’s Joy Bauer counts popcorn as one of her favorite snacks for slimming down, and recommends that if you don’t have an air popper, you can “add 4 tablespoons popcorn kernels to a brown paper lunch bag, fold over the edge of the bag twice to close it, and microwave the bag on high for 1.5 to 2 minutes” — or for however long it takes for there to be about 10 seconds of silence after that last popcorn “pop.”

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As for the microwavable popcorn you buy at the store — the kind that comes with butter or seasoning already added in — beware. Serving sizes vary, as do calorie counts, sodium levels, and sugar levels depending upon what flavor and brand you’re buying. There are light, low-fat, and skinny versions of store-bought microwavable popcorn, but if you’re looking to lose weight, you’re better off popping your own.

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What about movie theater popcorn? Is that bad for you?

As far as popcorn goes, it’s pretty much the least healthy kind. Cooked in oil and then typically drenched in butter (or worse, butter flavoring) and salt, movie theater popcorn racks up the calories quick. There’s no reason you can’t still enjoy a small popcorn when you hit the theater, but if you’re looking to write it off as a healthy snack and not a cheat day indulgence, you’re out of luck.

What are the health benefits of popcorn? Is popcorn a good source of fiber?

Yep! But its nutritional values aren’t the only health benefits of eating popcorn. Another is that popcorn is actually pretty filling — and for people who tend to snack or munch throughout the day, it’s a pretty good replacement for just about anything other than “negative calories” fruits and veggies. And it’s hard to beat food that burns more calories than it contains. But wouldn’t you rather be eating a bowl of popcorn than crunching down on plain celery?

How did the popcorn diet start?

Dr. Joel Herskowitz, author of The Popcorn Plus Diet, suggested to People back in 1987 that the popcorn diet may have actually started at the first Thanksgiving after a Native American woman introduced the Pilgrims to the tasty treat. His book offers original (and intriguing) recipes using popcorn, like a potato-and-popcorn casserole or pop-’n’-bake chicken. But the real secret to the popcorn diet is just letting popcorn take the place of a meal or snacks. “There’s no way to eat popcorn fast,” Dr. Herskowitz explained. “The key thing is the crunch. You have the satisfaction of chewing.” You definitely can’t get that with a juice cleanse.

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Are there good popcorn recipes or do you have to eat popcorn plain?

Butter and salt will pretty much cancel out any nutritional value your air-popped popcorn has, but there are things you can do to spice up the flavor of your snack. Joy Bauer recommends adding a little Parmesan cheese, chili powder and cumin, or hot sauce. Lisa Drayer says herbs like basil, oregano, or red pepper flakes can do wonders. You can also dip your popcorn in a little yellow mustard, which LiveStrong.com says is high in potassium, phosphorus, calcium, and magnesium. Just be careful of using too much and upping your sodium intake.

If you’re looking for something sweet, this dark chocolate sea salt popcorn hits the spot. And there are tons more recipes online. Greatist.com has 27 different healthy popcorn recipes — and even movies to pair each with for a classic popcorn experience.

Happy popping!

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