However, people with diabetes need to take other factors into account when selecting snacks. Popcorn can be healthful, but it contains carbohydrates, so anyone who has to manage their blood sugar levels needs to choose the type, cooking method, and serving size carefully.
In this article, we look at the benefits of popcorn for people with diabetes. We also provide serving suggestions and alternative snack options.
Popcorn and glycemic index
Popcorn does not cause a spike in blood sugar due to its low GI.
For people with diabetes, the glycemic index (GI) is an important number to consider when choosing what foods to buy and eat.
Air-popped popcorn has a GI of 55. It is technically a low-GI food, even though it has a higher GI than many other foods in this category. Popcorn remains a better snack option than many salty or sugary snacks for avoiding high blood sugar and diabetes complications.
GI is a scale from 1 to 100 that refers to the speed at which sugar enters the bloodstream after a person eats foods containing carbohydrates. The higher the GI value, the more the blood sugar will rise.
In general, the digestive system processes foods with a higher GI rapidly, resulting in quick absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, these foods produce significant rises in blood sugar levels. In people with diabetes, the body cannot naturally regulate blood sugar, so this increase can lead to hyperglycemia.
Conversely, the body absorbs low-GI foods at a slower rate. The increases that they cause in blood sugar and insulin levels are, therefore, more gradual.
Low-GI diets offer proven health benefits, including improved glucose and lipid levels, for those with type 1 or type 2 diabetes. They also support weight control because slow absorption helps control appetite and provide satiety for longer.
Popcorn comes with recommended serving sizes. Sticking to these can make a notable difference to a person's calorie intake, even with relatively healthful foods.
Additionally, the choice of toppings has a significant effect on how much a person can or should eat per serving.
Eating 5 cups of air-popped popcorn provides 100–150 calories with very little fat. People might be able to eat more or less in a serving depending on their personalized diet plan.
People who are calorie-counting to manage diabetes should avoid eating more than their doctor advises between meals. Portion size is vital for controlling blood sugar levels. While popcorn is a low-GI food in small amounts, eating too much might still cause a spike in blood sugar levels in those with diabetes.
Be sure to measure portions carefully and use the same measures or calorie counts for each snack.
Air-popped popcorn is the best choice for people with diabetes.
People on a restricted diet, including those with diabetes, should avoid adding large amounts of toppings to popcorn. Plain, air-popped popcorn is the best option for getting the most nutritional benefit with minimal extra calories and fat.
It is best to choose unbuttered, unsalted popcorn that does not contain hydrogenated oils.
People who wish to enhance the flavor can try adding one of the following:
- a small amount of grated, low-fat cheese
- a sprinkling of nutritional yeast
- a drizzle of olive oil
- spices, such as chili powder, garlic powder, or cinnamon
Stores generally sell the most healthful popcorn in the form of loose kernels. In this bulk form, the kernels do not usually have any added salt, oil, sugar, or other ingredients that people with diabetes should avoid.
A person can then choose to cook the popcorn in the method that best suits their needs and personal preference.
Those looking for a faster snack option could use microwave popcorn as an alternative. However, it is important to check the packaging as prepared bags often contain extra butter or sugar. Instead, people can look for packets of popcorn with light, unsalted butter or fewer calories.
People with diabetes should avoid kettle corn varieties, as the extra sweetness comes with additional sugar. Caramel- and candy-covered popcorn are also not good choices of snack for the same reason.
Air-popped, unsalted popcorn offers very few calories per cup.
Popcorn qualifies as a whole-grain food. One serving can provide about 70 percent of the recommended daily intake of whole grain. Whole-grain foods have excellent fiber content. A cup of air-popped popcorn contains a little over 1 g of fiber. It also provides close to 1 g of protein and about 6 g of carbohydrate.
Popcorn provides a wide range of vitamins and minerals, including:
- vitamin A
- vitamin E
- vitamin B-6
- pantothenic acid
The popcorn's hull, which people also call the kernel or shell, is the source of much of its nutritional value. It contains beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, which are important for maintaining eye health.
Researchers have stated that popcorn contains up to 300 milligrams (mg) of polyphenols per serving. This high amount of polyphenols equates to about 13 percent of the average daily polyphenol intake of those living in the United States.
However, popcorn offers the most benefits when it is air-popped. Adding too much salt, butter, and oil can reduce its nutritional benefits.
Alternative snack options
Nuts are a good alternative to popcorn.
Not everyone enjoys popcorn when it does not have butter or another condiment as a topping. If this is the case, alternative foods can serve as snack options for people with diabetes.
Some examples include the following:
- Roasted or raw nuts: Nuts are high in protein and healthful fats. Avoid excessively salted nuts.
- Vegetables: Raw or minimally processed vegetables are the best options. Mix leafy greens in a small salad with olive oil and vinegar. Alternatively, broccoli florets, carrot sticks, snap peas, and other raw vegetables are healthful, high-fiber choices that pair nicely with hummus or tzatziki.
- Fruits: Some people with diabetes try to avoid eating fruits due to their sugar content. However, in moderation, fruits make an excellent snack for people with diabetes because they are high in fiber. Fresh or frozen fruits contain the most nutrition. Avoid canned fruit in heavy syrup or other sugary, processed options, such as fruity pie filling.
- Cheese: In moderation, cheese is a good source of protein and calcium with low amounts of sugar.
Popcorn offers people with diabetes a low-sugar, low-calorie snack option.
It will not increase a person's blood sugar levels by a significant amount, making it a safe choice between meals.
However, people should keep toppings to a minimum and avoid eating excessive portions.
There is a wide range of corn kernels and air-popped popcorn products available to purchase online.
What is the most healthful way to cook popcorn?
Cooking popcorn in the microwave, on the stove, or in an air-popper are all simple ways to make this snack.
The primary consideration when cooking popcorn should be the presence of any added ingredients. Choosing unsalted popcorn with little or no butter and being mindful of portion size is important when trying to keep this snack healthful.Natalie Olsen, RD, LD, ACSM EP-C Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.