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Blockbuster calories await summer moviegoers

July 07, 2014

SPRINGFIELD – It’s summer blockbuster movie time and 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?

“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.

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.

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

So, 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,” said Serafino-Cross.

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 said.

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.

The Baystate dietitian also suggested sharing the calories at the concession stand with a friend and splitting the popcorn and candy you purchase, noting to make it worth your while in calories, it’s best to share smaller sizes than the largest option.

As for popular ice cream snacks, and newer additions to the concession stand menu such as hot dogs and nachos, “forget them,” said the Baystate dietitian, who noted they, too, are high in fat and sodium, not to mention calories.

As for special promotions at some theater chains that offer a free refill on a large popcorn or soda, “resist the urge to go back for more,” said Serafino-Cross.

“Above all else, don’t go into the movie theater hungry. How many times have you heard someone tell you not to go grocery shopping when you’re hungry because you will buy everything in site that looks good to you? Well, the same principle applies to the movie theater,” she said.

Baystate Medical Center clinical dietitian Allison Clark, RD, adds, “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.”

“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.