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Blockbuster calories await summer moviegoers

July 07, 2014

It’s summer blockbuster movie time! Who doesn’t like to munch on some yummy treats while watching creepy-looking space invaders destroy the Earth or eat their sorrows away while "enjoying" a four-hanky movie?

Blockbuster calories

"The minute you enter the movie theater, you are tempted by the aroma of popcorn popping and faced almost immediately with the concession stand before you, which is too hard for many to resist. But, remember, in addition to the blockbuster movie on the screen, there’s also plenty of blockbuster calories at the concession stand waiting for you," said Paula Serafino-Cross, RD, clinical dietitian at Baystate Medical Center.

"You can eat much more than a day’s worth of calories in just two hours while sitting in the dark theater and enjoying your movie. Just as at home or in a restaurant, moderation and portion size is key. Think small, and don’t be persuaded to get that jumbo size popcorn or extra-large soda for just a few more pennies," she added.

If popcorn is a must, Serafino-Cross recommends a small bag with no buttery topping or additional salt from the shaker. She noted depending on the theater chain, even a small popcorn can average around 400-670 calories. Also, depending on the size you choose, your popcorn treat can equal a single meal’s worth of calories with most large popcorn choices averaging upwards to 1,200 calories and 60 grams of artery-clogging saturated fat – far more than the American Heart Association’s recommended daily intake of less than 16 grams of saturated fat.

Oily, buttery, and salty

In question is the oil used to pop the corn. Cinemark, one of the nation’s largest theater chains, pops in heart-healthy, non-hydrogenated canola oil instead of coconut oil. The result is a bag of popcorn with significantly less saturated fat, compared to other chains using coconut oil, which is 90 percent saturated fat.

Then, there’s the "buttery" toppings offered in movie theaters, which range from 120 to 260 calories, in addition to the calories from the popcorn and the oil that it’s popped in.

"There’s also the question of salt used when popping the corn. If you do order popcorn, resist the urge to pick up the salt shaker because some large popcorn kernels can put you close to your day’s recommended sodium limit, especially with the added buttery topping also being loaded with salt," said Serafino-Cross, noting the American Heart Association recommends limiting salt intake to no more than 1,500 milligrams per day.

Quenching your thirst

"Of course, all that salt is going to make you thirsty, too," she added.

If you choose to wash it all down with a soda, continue to think small.

"It’s no secret that soda is filled with empty calories. Go small or choose a diet soda of any size, unsweetened ice tea if they have it, or even better, a healthy bottle of water," Serafino-Cross said.

On average, a small soda at the movies can equal as many as 14 teaspoons of sugar and about 200 calories, while thirsty drinkers opting for the large soda can ingest some 450 calories and nearly 30 teaspoons of sugar.

Even better than opting for the small sizes, Serafino-Cross noted some movie houses offer smaller-sized kid combos consisting of a drink and popcorn.

"Isn’t everyone a kid at the movies?" she joked.

Chomping on candy

When it comes to snacking on candy, who can resists those M&Ms, Gummy Bears, Milk Duds, Junior Mints, Sno Caps, Twizzlers (3-4 oz. packages) and a myriad of other packaged sugary treats? The plain truth is while yummy, candy offers little nutritional value along with its high sugar and calorie counts. For example, a typical 3.1- oz. box of Sno Caps weighs in at 300 calories, while an 4-oz. bag of Reese’s Pieces has as many as 580 calories , 61 grams of sugar and 20 grams of saturated fat (more than the amount you need for the entire day!).

If you really need to satisfy your sweet tooth, Serafino-Cross suggests trying four Twizzlers for 133 calories and less than 1 gram of fat.

"Don’t forget to brush your teeth after any sticky, sweet treats," she said.

Quick Tips

The Baystate dietitian shared a few other tips to get your through the movies:

  • Share the calories at the concession stand with a friend by splitting the popcorn and candy. It’s best to share smaller sizes than the largest option.
  • Stay away from ice cream snacks, hot dogs, and nachos. They are high in fat and sodium, not to mention calories.
  • Resist the urge to take advantage of special promotions at some theater chains, like free refills on a large popcorn or soda.
  • Don't go to the movie theater hungry. It's just like not going grocery shopping when you're hungry.

"If movie trips are infrequent and the thought of forgoing your favorite snack is not an option, at the very least, limit your portions and make healthful meal choices outside of the theater," Baystate Medical Center clinical dietitian Allison Clark, RD said.

"With the continued movement to provide healthy food options for the public, AMC theaters offer Smart Snack bundles, which include foods such as trail mix bars, popcorn chips and water. Hopefully, we will see other theater chains moving in the same direction," she said.