One of the most pressing questions any low-carb or keto dieter has is: “What kinds of snacking options are keto-friendly?” And of all the snacks available, popcorn seems to take first place as the most popular.
Popcorn, with its airy and salty crunchiness, seems to be one of the biggest crowd-pleasers.
In the United States alone, the total annual consumption of popcorn is 13 billion quarts of popcorn. That’s about 42 quarts of popcorn per person, on average[*].
So is popcorn keto or not?
Read on to learn about the total carb count and net carbs in popcorn, as well as practical tips to fit popcorn into your ketogenic diet.
Humans first cultivated corn or maize at least 10,000 years ago, in what is now Mexico. Corn is a staple food, and the most widely grown grain crop in the Americas, with production approaching 400 million metric tons per year[*].
People have enjoyed popcorn for thousands of years. In Peru, archaeologists have found popcorn fossils (yes, popcorn fossils) that are over 6,000 years old[*].
A Modern History Of Popcorn
In the 19th century, people popped corn on stove tops by hand. Popcorn kernels were widely available on the East Coast of the United States, and the first written usage of the term “popped corn” was in John Russell Bartlett’s 1848 Dictionary of Americanisms.
In the 1890s, a Chicago candy store owner named Charles Cretor invented a steam-powered popcorn maker that was inspired by nut-roasting machines. He sold popcorn from street carts using his steam-powered popcorn maker design, which is still in use today.
Popcorn grew in popularity during the Great Depression as an inexpensive snack. The popcorn business thrived even as other companies failed, and popcorn production became a source of income for struggling farmers.
During World War II, sugar rationing took its toll on the production of candy, and American popcorn production tripled.
People began bringing their own popcorn to movie theaters, which dismayed theater owners, who felt that the snack distracted moviegoers. Soon, though, popcorn makers appeared in the lobbies of theaters throughout the United States.
Orville Redenbacher launched his famous popcorn brand in 1970, and in 1981, General Mills patented the first microwave popcorn bag. Popcorn consumption continued to increase in the ensuing years, and still today it remains the most popular movie night snack.
A single cup of air-popped popcorn, which weighs just 8 grams, has:
A typical five-cup serving of air-popped popcorn contains:
1 cup of stovetop popcorn cooked with coconut oil contains:
A five-cup serving of stovetop popcorn cooked in coconut oil has:
Air-popped popcorn has a relatively low glycemic index (GI) of 55. Thanks to its high volume and its fiber content, popcorn is also quite filling. This makes it easier to control your portions when compared to most other snack foods.
One caveat: Be sure to steer clear of microwave popcorn, which tends to have harmful preservatives and unhealthy refined oils high in omega-6 fatty acids.
Popcorn kernels contain an impressive amount of fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants, making it a tasty snack with a number of health benefits[*].
One study found that people who consumed one cup of popcorn felt more satiated and satisfied compared to when they ate the same amount of potato chips. Why? Popcorn is a whole grain, it’s high in fiber, and it’s nutrient-dense[*].
According to standard popcorn nutrition facts, you should be able to eat about a cup of popcorn and still stay in ketosis.
If you’re new to a low-carb lifestyle, or just starting the ketogenic diet, cutting out your favorite high-carb snacks can be a difficult process.
As your body adapts to ketosis, you may experience cravings for comfort foods, or temporarily feel a dip in your energy levels as you make the change.
Fortunately — as long as you’re careful — you can have popcorn on keto.
A single cup of oil-popped popcorn using coconut oil has just 4 grams of net carbs and 2-3 grams of healthy fat. It’s a great way to satisfy your cravings without kicking you out of ketosis.
However, there are other instances when popcorn won’t fit into your keto meal plan.
When You Should Avoid Popcorn on a Keto Diet
Which one seems more likely: having a single cup of tasty popcorn, or having five cups of popcorn in a sitting?
For most people, self-discipline around food is not the easiest thing. If you tend to eat lots of popcorn, then you probably shouldn’t make it a daily snack.
The number of carbs you can eat per day on keto will vary according to your body type, goals, and health history. Some people can eat a full five-cup serving of popcorn with 25 grams of net carbs and stay in ketosis, but that’s not the case for everyone.
If you find yourself overeating, gaining unwanted body fat, not losing weight, or otherwise not hitting your keto goals, you might want to avoid popcorn on keto.
If you do want to eat popcorn, use the stove top method or an air popper instead of microwave popcorn. That way you have control over what oils and any toppings you use, and you can avoid unnecessary artificial flavors and other unhealthy ingredients.
When you go to the movie theater, keep in mind that theater popcorn is most likely highly processed and filled with harmful additives and added sugars. As such, taking your own keto snacks might be a wise decision.
Remember that even on a strict keto diet, popcorn won’t be your only source of net carbs. Don’t forget to factor in all carb content of other carbohydrate sources so you don’t exceed your limit and exit ketosis.
If you aren’t sure how many grams of carbs to eat per day, the Perfect Keto Macronutrient Calculator is a fantastic resource.
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Grams of protein per pound of lean body mass
Adequate protein should be eaten on a ketogenic diet. For most people, it is undesirable to lose muscle mass. Set this ratio at a minimum of .8g/lb of lean body mass. Increase the ratio based on your strength goals and exercise demands.
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It is highly recommended that on a ketogenic diet, you keep your carb intake to 5% or less of total calories. This works out to be an average of 30g net carbs a day.
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- Tastes like dessert without added sugars or sugar alcohols
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Worried that this is too much protein? Most keto macro calculators will tell you that your protein needs to be only 10-15% of your total calories. We don’t agree. Check out the video below by our founder Dr. Anthony Gustin to understand why he made this macro calculator with higher than most protein recommendations:
Keto-Friendly Popcorn Alternatives
Whether you’re having a movie night at home or planning to see the latest flick at the theater, a little preparation goes a long way.
Prepare your own keto popcorn at home and portion it into a container, so that you don’t end up overeating and getting kicked out of ketosis. Here are some other low-carb snacks to consider:
- Keto-friendly nuts: Nuts such as macadamias and pecans are a great alternative to popcorn as they offer some saltiness and crunch, and they’re easy to carry. They’re also packed with health benefits like reduced inflammation and immune support[*].
- Pork rinds and beef jerky: These meaty, low-carb snacks are a great option when you want to indulge in something savory and snacky without stressing out about carb counting. Plus, they’re protein powerhouses to keep you feeling full longer[*].
- Cauliflower: This might sound strange at first, but cauliflower makes an incredible movie time snack. It’s low-carb, nutrient-dense, and has great texture, making it a healthy snack and one of the most beloved keto veggies. All you have to do is season the cauliflower florets with your favorite keto-friendly spices, and roast them until tender.
Believe it or not, popcorn can be keto-friendly. While most people can’t get away with a full five-cup serving of popcorn every day when on the keto diet, it’s a viable option as a weekly treat.
Granted, popcorn is not the number one choice for a keto-friendly snack. But compared to most snack options, it’s low-calorie, filling, and free of trans fats and artificial flavors. (As long as you get it from a reputable source that doesn’t use any questionable ingredients.)
The key to enjoying popcorn on a ketogenic diet is to limit your daily net carb intake, control your portions, and track your progress towards your goals.
If you’re making progress towards your goals while eating popcorn, then it’s working for you. If you’re not making progress, it’s time to take a closer look at your calories, net carbs, and portion sizes, including popcorn consumption.
The bottom line is, if you’re a popcorn lover, this is a sugar-free, gluten-free snack option that can help make your keto lifestyle feel more balanced. Cover with some cheddar cheese or parmesan, grass-fed butter, and sea salt for a high-fat, savory snack.
For more low-carb snack ideas and keto recipes, don’t miss the following guides that will help you on your health and weight loss journey: