Popcorn is a whole-grain, low-calorie snack.
However, people with diabetes have more to worry about than their waistlines when snacking on popcorn.
People with diabetes can eat popcorn but need to choose carefully the type of popcorn, how it is cooked, and how much they eat, due to popcorn's high carb content.
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Air-popped popcorn offers very few calories per cup. In addition, a cup of air-popped popcorn contains a little over 1 gram (g) in fiber. It also contains about 1 g of protein and about 6 g of carbohydrate.
Popcorn qualifies as a whole-grain food. One serving can provide about 70 percent of the recommended daily intake of whole grain.
Popcorn is full of vitamins and minerals. A single serving of popcorn contains a number of vitamins and minerals, including:
- vitamin A
- vitamin E
- vitamin B6
- pantothenic acid
The popcorn's hull or shell is the source of much of its nutritional value. The shell contains beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are important for maintaining eye health.
Researchers have stated that popcorn contains up to 300 milligrams of polyphenols per serving. This high amount of polyphenols is more than 60 percent of the amount provided by fruits and vegetables in the average American diet.
However, popcorn's benefits are greatest when the popcorn is air-popped. Similar to salads and potatoes, these health benefits are often reduced by adding too much salt, butter, oil, and other condiments or toppings.
Like any food, popcorn comes with recommended serving sizes and should not be enjoyed in excess. Additionally, the choice of toppings has a serious impact on how much a person can or should eat per serving.
As mentioned above, a serving size of popcorn of roughly 5 cups popped, offers a number of nutrients. This equates to a small bowl of popcorn.
Nutritional yeast is packed with vitamin B12. Its cheesy flavor makes it a great topping for popcorn.
For people on a restricted diet, such as people with diabetes, it is best to avoid adding large amounts of other add-ons to popcorn. Air-popped popcorn is the best option to get the most benefit with minimal extras.
For people who want some additional flavor, oil-popped popcorn does not add many calories and adds a bit of flavor.
Other suggestions include small amounts of grated cheese, nutritional yeast, a bit of olive oil, and spices such as chili powder, garlic powder, or even cinnamon.
Popcorn and glycemic index
For people with diabetes, the glycemic index (GI) is an important number to know when considering what food to buy and eat. GI is a scale from 1 to 100 and refers to how much the body's blood sugar increases after eating carbohydrate-filled foods. The higher the value, the more the blood sugar will rise.
In general, foods with a higher GI are rapidly digested, leading to quick absorption. As a result, they produce marked changes in blood sugar levels.
By comparison, low-GI foods are much slower to digest and are absorbed at a slower rate. In turn, they produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels.
Low-GI diets have some proven health benefits, including:
- improving both glucose and lipid levels in those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes
- weight control, as the slow absorption helps control appetite and delay hunger
Air-popped popcorn has a GI of 55, which is at the upper end of low-GI foods but much better than other salty snacks.
What to look for when shopping for popcorn
When someone with diabetes chooses popcorn, they should shop based on both dietary restrictions and personal preference.
The most healthful popcorn to buy is generally sold in loose kernels. These bulk bins, bottles or containers do not contain any additional salt, oil, sugar, or other ingredients that are generally not good for people with diabetes. A person can then choose to cook the popcorn in the method that best suits their needs and desires.
For those looking for a faster snacking option, microwave popcorn might be the best alternative. However, with prepared bags, people with diabetes should avoid products that contain extra butter or sugar, or movie theater butter. Instead, it is best to look for bags offering light butter or lower calorie bags of popcorn.
People with diabetes should avoid kettle corn varieties, as the sweetness comes with additional sugar. Caramel- or candy-covered popcorn should also be avoided for this reason.
Other snack options
Not all people enjoy popcorn or like it when it is not covered in butter or other, tastier condiments. If this is the case, there are some alternative snack items that people with diabetes might find more helpful.
Some examples include the following:
Raw or roasted unsalted nuts are high in protein and also make an excellent snack in small portions.
- Roasted or raw nuts: Similar to popcorn, excessively salted nuts should be avoided. Nuts are high in protein and healthful fats and have a number of nutrients that give people many health benefits.
- Vegetables: Similarly to nuts, raw or minimally processed vegetables are the best options. Leafy greens in a small salad with olive oil and vinegar, raw vegetables like broccoli florets, carrot sticks, and snap peas are great ideas that offer a high-fiber snack and pair nicely with hummus.
- Fruits: Some people try to avoid fruits because of the sugars in them. However, in moderation, fruits are high in fiber and make an excellent snack for people with diabetes. Fresh or frozen fruits are the best options. Canned fruit in heavy syrup or other sugar filled options, such as fruity pie filling, should be avoided.
- Cheese: In moderation, such as in two or less servings a day, cheese offers a good source of protein and calcium with low amounts of sugar.
Popcorn can offer people with diabetes a low-sugar, low-calorie food option to snack on. This handy snack will not increase a person's blood sugar levels greatly, making it a safe bet between meals.