When you’re on any sort of eating plan, it can be confusing to suss out which foods are okay to eat, and which are better to be avoided — and those who follow the ketogenic diet often find it particularly challenging, especially when it comes to snacks. Take popcorn, for instance: It’s long been seen as a standard yummy, healthy snack, a whole grain no less, enjoyed by people young and old. In fact, the Popcorn Board (which is an organization of popcorn companies) says that Americans munch on 15 billion quarts each year! That’s 45 quarts eaten per person annually. And surprisingly, while you may think that the majority of that is from the gigantic tubs of popcorn served at cinemas and state fairs, the Popcorn Board says that 70% of it is eaten in the home.
One confusion about popcorn, when it comes to the keto diet, is how high it is in carbohydrates, since one of the tenets of the diet is limiting carbs. Knowing that many crunchy snack foods available on the shelves are loaded with carbs — for example, a single serving of potato chips has 15g of carbohydrates, and who eats a single serving? — adds to the confusion about whether popcorn (not to mention the toppings often used) are okay to eat when following this eating plan. So if you’re on a keto diet, you may be curious whether popcorn is considered a keto-friendly food. Here, answers from nutritionists to answer all your questions about this topic.
Editor’s note: Weight loss, health and body image are complex subjects — before deciding to go on a diet, we invite you to gain a broader perspective by reading our exploration into the hazards of diet culture.
Table of Contents
Is popcorn healthy?
Let’s start with the basics: Popcorn is a specific type of maize called zea mays everta. After the ears of corn are harvested, they’re dried out and then the kernels are removed. However, a small bit of moisture remains in the hard kernel, and when the kernel is heated, the moisture vaporizes and pressure builds within, until the kernel eventually “pops” and expands into the fluffy, yummy snack we all love. Because the kernel remains attached (albeit in pieces) to the soft flesh, it’s true that popcorn is technically a whole-grain snack. When it’s eaten plain, it’s low in sugar and fat and even contains some fiber — so overall it’s considered a healthy snack. Again, that’s when it’s eaten plain. It’s also a filling snack, because of the fiber, and it’s fun to eat as well.
Below, here’s a list of the nutrition facts for 1 cup of plain air-popped popcorn:
- Calories: 31
- Total fat: 0.4g
- Cholesterol: 0mg
- Sodium: 0.6mg
- Total carbohydrate: 6.2g
- Fiber: 1.2g
- Total sugar: 0.1g
- Protein: 1g
Is popcorn keto-friendly?
A big reason why this question comes up: Corn does contain carbohydrates. Still, the answer is yes, you can eat popcorn on a keto diet — but there are a few things to keep in mind. Once you figure out how many daily carbs your body can take in to remain in ketosis, you can divvy up your allotment however you like, but popcorn can easily fit in a ketogenic eating plan. “For all intents and purposes, it is a keto-friendly food,” says Vanessa Rissetto, M.S., R.D., co-founder of the nutrition coaching platform Culina Health. “It’s going to fill you up, it’s not high on the carb count and it has a little bit of fiber.”
The key is not to go overboard — 1 cup of air-popped popcorn has only 6 grams of carbs, but if you eat 3 cups, that’s 18 grams and likely more than half of your daily carbs.
What kind of popcorn is most keto-friendly?
If you’re following a keto diet and want to chow down on popcorn, think about how it’s prepared. “Air-popped popcorn is the most nutritious because it has the least amount of fluff — chemicals, food coloring, salt, fat — added to it via processing,” says
Lisa Andrews, M.Ed., R.D., owner of Sound Bites Nutrition in Cincinnati, Ohio. On the other hand, she says, traditional microwave popcorn contains a fair amount of hydrogenated oils (unless it’s labeled 94% fat-free) and sodium, as well as diacetyl, a buttery-flavored chemical that’s been linked with lung disease in employees at popcorn-processing plants. “Movie-style popcorn contains Flavacol— an ingredient containing salt, artificial butter flavor, Yellow #5 and Yellow #6. It also has hydrogenated soybean oil meant to mimic butter,” she adds.
Also, consider what you’re topping the popcorn with.“The issues starts to happen when you start adding different things to popcorn,” Rissetto says. If you use a sugary topping, like caramel or chocolate, then that’s not keto-friendly. But according to Rissetto, if you use savory things like butter, Parmesan cheese, seasonings or a tiny bit of hot sauce, then that would keep the snack within the limits of the diet. Another option is to toss the popcorn in nut butter, or sprinkle on spices like cinnamon and salt.
Other keto-friendly snacks
If you’re looking for other snacks to eat on a keto diet, there are a lot of options —and many of them are healthy choices (bacon and pork rinds are exceptions! They’re keto-friendly, but really not the best for your body, so we’re leaving them off this list). Consider these suggestions from Andrews:
- Celery sticks, radishes, bell pepper strips or mushrooms with guacamole or full-fat cream cheese
- Scrambled or hard-boiled eggs
- Kale chips or roasted Brussels sprouts
- A small portion of nuts or seeds
- String cheese or cheese cubes
- Parmesan or other cheese crisps
- Tuna salad wrapped in lettuce
- Ham and cheese wrapped in lettuce
- Grilled chicken or shrimp kababs
- Shrimp (without cocktail sauce)
- Meatballs made without breadcrumbs or other grains
- Meat “sticks” such as jerky or biltong
Bottom line: Popcorn, when prepared as suggested above, can be a great keto-friendly snack. But it’s important for those on the keto diet to remember that you have to stick with it for a decent amount of time to start seeing any weight loss (and if you go off the diet, there’s a good chance you regain any pounds they dropped). And of course, when you have to carefully evaluate everything you eat, not only can that be tiring over time; it can also suck the joy out of eating. “It’s really not fun — the mental aspect of it is really tough to do,” says Rissetto. On top of that, even though you may lose weight, there are long-term health issues to consider with the keto diet. “Excessive carbs from refined foods — sweets, chips, snack foods, fast food — are not the best for overall health, but a keto diet lacks variety and can be low in fiber, which also raises the risk for certain diseases including heart disease and cancer,” Andrews points out. The USDA recommends that women get at least 25 grams of fiber a day, and that men get 38 grams — and research shows that fiber itself promotes a feeling of satiety and, along with helping prevent certain diseases, is good for managing one’s weight, if that’s the goal. You should always check with your doctor before starting any diet.
Kaitlyn Phoenix is a senior editor in the Hearst Health Newsroom, where she reports, writes and edits research-backed health content for Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day. She has more than 10 years of experience talking to top medical professionals and poring over studies to figure out the science of how our bodies work. Beyond that, Kaitlyn turns what she learns into engaging and easy-to-read stories about medical conditions, nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental health. She also holds a B.S. in magazine journalism from Syracuse University.
Nutrition Lab Director
Stefani (she/her) is a registered dietitian, a NASM-certified personal trainer and the director of the Good Housekeeping Institute Nutrition Lab, where she handles all nutrition-related content, testing and evaluation. She holds a bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s degree in clinical nutrition from NYU. She is also Good Housekeeping’s on-staff fitness and exercise expert. Stefani is dedicated to providing readers with evidence-based content to encourage informed food choices and healthy living. She is an avid CrossFitter and a passionate home cook who loves spending time with her big fit Greek family.