Is Popcorn Keto? Plus Low-Carb Alternatives

Being on the famous low-carb, high-fat lifestyle means giving up sugars, processed carbs, and maintaining a carb count that keeps us in keto. The thing is, specifics can get tricky — even with foods as simple sounding as popcorn.

So where does the most famous movie snack of all time fit in?

In this article, we'll talk about:

  • What popcorn actually is
  • What keto and "keto-friendly" mean
  • Whether or not you can eat popcorn on keto
  • The nutritional content of popcorn
  • Carb counts for common types of popcorn
  • The best keto popcorn alternatives
  • How to make your own popcorn at home

Is Popcorn Keto-Friendly

What Is Popcorn? Is It Actually Healthy?

Popcorn is just what it sounds like — popped corn kernels. Kernels are the fruits of corn, and a single ear of corn can have over 800 of them! There are a ton of different types of corn (or maize), but farmers in the corn belt grow a specific variation known as “popping corn” for popcorn. This corn has kernels that are ideal for drying and popping due to their moisture levels[*].

All popping corn kernels have a starchy tissue called an endosperm. When the endosperm is exposed to high heat, the moisture inside it turns to steam and rapidly expands until the kernel splits and becomes the delicious treat we know and love.

Whether or not popcorn is healthy depends on the type you eat and the diet you're following. Fresh, air-popped popcorn is low in calories, filled with fiber, has more antioxidants than some fruits and vegetables, and may even help fight cancer[*].

On the other hand, movie theatre popcorn is a concentrated bucket of saturated fat and calories — delicious, yes, but so far from what we would consider "healthy".

Keto Diet Overview

The ketogenic diet aims to reduce your carbohydrate levels long enough for your body to enter a survival state known as "ketosis". This is when your body begins consuming its own fat to provide your body with the energy it needs. You are essentially gaming one of your body's survival mechanisms by swapping your typical energy source (glucose found in carbohydrates) for an alternative one (ketones found in your fat)[*].

While the amount of daily net carbohydrates you can eat varies according to your activity levels and body, most people on keto should eat between 20g and 50g of net carbohydrates each day. Once you begin reducing your carbs, your body will begin to work toward a state of ketosis[*].

How long it takes you to reach ketosis depends on how long it's been since you were last in ketosis and how strictly you are reducing carbs, but you should reach ketosis within a few weeks.

People tend to report bad breath, short-term fatigue, increased focus, and insomnia when they first enter ketosis, but these side effects usually go away after a few days[*].

What Do We Mean by "Keto-Friendly"?

Keto is a little different than a traditional diet because it isn't concerned with calorie counts. It's all about carbs.

You could eat nothing but beef (meat is naturally zero-carb) and consume thousands of calories over your daily recommended value and still be "on keto". This wouldn't be a healthy approach to keto, but you wouldn't break your ketosis.

With this in mind, there aren't foods that are keto or not keto — it's all about staying below your allotted carb amounts. As long as you don't surpass your carbohydrate limit, you can technically eat anything, but in order to maintain some degree of normalcy and eat a balanced diet (that also keeps you full), you need to prioritize eating low-carb foods.

In short, the more keto-friendly a food is, the fewer carbs it has per serving. That's it!

Can You Eat Popcorn on the Keto Diet?

If you eat air-popped popcorn or popcorn popped with a healthy fat source like coconut oil or ghee and keep an eye on your serving size, then yes, popcorn is keto-friendly.

Most types of sugary and mass-produced popcorn such as movie theatre popcorn, kettle corn, and microwave popcorn should be avoided on a standard ketogenic diet due to their high carbohydrate content and unhealthy additives.

Homemade and popcorn made with healthier oil is much more keto-friendly. For example, one typical serving of popcorn (4-5 cups) can have around 30 grams of carbohydrates — which is likely enough to kick you out of ketosis[*].

The thing is, that's a good amount of popcorn! If you only have a single cup, your snack will be under 10g of net carbs. Just measure your serving size ahead of time to be safe — we all know how hard it is to keep popcorn snacking to a minimum!

Is Skinny Pop Keto?

It is more keto-friendly than most other types of popcorn.

Skinny Pop is incredibly popular. It's low in calories, tasty, and convenient. Skinny Pop has 7g of net carbs per small bag, making it pretty keto-friendly.

So while it is lower in carbs than typical popcorn, it's still best to substitute Skinny Pop for lower-carb snack options like beef jerky sticks, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs, and nuts.

Pro Tips for Eating Popcorn on Keto

Since your goal is to reduce carb counts, the best way to eat popcorn on keto is to eat it without any extra sugar or carb-containing additives. That eliminates all movie theater popcorn, all microwave popcorn, any sugary popcorn like kettle and caramel, and any other flavors that add extra carb-containing ingredients to their popcorn.

In short, make homemade air-popped popcorn and toss it with salt and pepper for the best results! Or better yet, choose a different, lower-carb snack altogether.

Popcorn Nutrition

Popcorn is probably healthier than you thought. If you eat air-popped popcorn that is plain or lightly seasoned it actually has a bunch of nutritional value and fits into a healthy diet.

Benefits of Eating Air-Popped Popcorn

  • Popcorn is a low-calorie snack when eaten plain. 4-5 cups of popcorn only has around 125 calories[*]. This makes it a great guilt-free snack when you're trying to keep your calorie count low.
  • Popcorn also has a lot of dietary fiber. Fiber can help with cholesterol, maintain weight, and improve your bowel regularity[*].
  • Popcorn contains useful vitamins and minerals. These include calcium, potassium, vitamin A, and vitamin K[*].

Potential Risks From Eating Popcorn

The risks from eating popcorn almost all come from the oils, fats, and seasonings that often come with it.

  • Movie theater popcorn is extremely high in saturated fats. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and eating too many saturated fats can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke[*].
  • This type of savory popcorn is also high in calories. Regal's large popcorns can contain 20 cups of popcorn, 1,200 calories, and 60 grams of saturated, artery-clogging fat[*]. That's the same as eating two personal pepperoni pizzas from Pizza Hut. Wow!
  • Microwave popcorn contains harmful ingredients like diacetyl. Diacetyl has been linked to the progress of Alzheimer's disease and may contribute to respiratory abnormalities[*]. Plus the bags themselves can contain carcinogenic PFOAs. Do yourself a favor and just skip the microwave popcorn from now on!
  • Popcorn is high in carbs, which can kick you out of ketosis. This isn't really a risk, but it is something to keep in mind if you're eating any sort of low-carb diet.
  • Popcorn has a moderate number of carbs, which can kick you out of ketosis if your snacking gets out of hand. This isn’t really a risk, but it is something to keep in mind if you're eating any sort of low-carb diet.

Common Popcorn Types and Brands (Plus Carb Counts)

Here are a few of the most popular brands to buy and ways to prepare popcorn along with their carb counts. It's pretty amazing to see how quickly popcorn goes from being a nutritious snack to being an entirely unhealthy one depending on how you prepare it.

Your choice of oil, seasoning, and additives all affect its nutritional value, so keep that in mind as you buy and make your own popcorn.

Note: the following macros are for a 1 oz (~28g) serving, which is approximately 3.5 cups of popcorn.

1. Air-Popped, No-Oil Popcorn

This is as plain as it gets. No sugar. No oil. Just the kernels and heat[*]!

  • Calories: 120
  • Fat: 1.2g
  • Carbs: 21g
  • Fiber: 3.6g
  • Protein: 3.7g

2. Plain Oil-Popped Popcorn

This is about as light on the seasoning as you can go. This just means putting a bit of oil in the pot you're popping the popcorn in and tossing it with salt[*].

  • Calories: 142
  • Fat: 7.97g
  • Carbs: 16.5g
  • Fiber: 2.8g
  • Protein: 2.6g

3. Caramel Corn

These stats are for typical caramel corn, which usually includes oil and brown sugar[*].

  • Calories: 122
  • Fat: 3.6g
  • Carbs: 22g
  • Fiber: 2.8g
  • Protein: 1.1g

4. Kettle Corn

I've always been on team kettle corn as a kid, and it's easy to see why — kettle corn is just regular popcorn with white sugar[*].

  • Calories: 130
  • Fat: 5g
  • Carbs: 21g
  • Fiber: 2g
  • Protein: 1g

5. Smartfood White Cheddar Popcorn

Growing up I loved Smartfood's White Cheddar Popcorn. I can taste it just thinking about it! Here's what that popcorn is like on the inside:

  • Calories: 160
  • Fat: 10g
  • Carbs: 13g
  • Fiber: 2g
  • Protein: 4g

6. Skinny Pop

Seemingly found in every co-working space and office in the country, here are Skinny Pop's nutrition stats[*]!

  • Calories: 150
  • Fat: 10g
  • Carbs: 15g
  • Fiber: 3g
  • Protein: 2g

Now that you know the nutrition behind your options, let's talk about how to make some healthy popcorn at home.

The Best Keto Popcorn Alternatives

If you'd rather skip thinking about carbs altogether, then you should keep some no-carb or very low-carb snacks around the house. Here are 5 of our favorite no-carb or super low-carb snacks!

1. Pork Rinds

Plain pork rinds are completely free from carbs. We recommend buying healthier brands than the ones you find at most gas stations, or just making your own. I was skeptical at first, but homemade pork rinds are amazing.

2. Deli Meats

Keeping fresh deli meats in the fridge is a great keto habit. Any meat like ham, roast beef, turkey, or chicken is free from carbs and can help you feel full between meals. You can also add a bit of cheese to these to make a low-carb roll-up of sorts.

3. Chomps

We're a little biased, but we think Chomps are one of the best no-carb keto snacks out there. We use the highest-quality, sustainably-sourced protein with no added sugar and no harmful ingredients to deliver keto-friendly meat snacks that taste amazing and give you the fuel you need at any point during the day.

4. Cucumbers and Pickles

For one of the healthiest and lowest calorie snacks, keep some cucumbers or plain dill pickles around the house. Cucumbers and pickles have small amounts of carbs, but since serving sizes are small, you rarely ingest more than a couple of grams.

5. Homemade Cheese Chips

Cheez-It fans, this one's for you. Homemade cheese chips are super easy to make, and they make a fantastic keto snack. Plus, you can easily make variety packs with whatever cheeses you like!

How to Make the Healthiest (and Tastiest) Popcorn at Home

If you want to whip up a snack for friends or family at home and keep it healthy, here's the way to do that[*].

What You'll Need:

  • 2 tablespoons coconut oil
  • ¼ cup unpopped popcorn
  • sea salt to taste

Instructions:

  1. Place popcorn and oil in a 3-quart pot over medium heat and cover the pot with a lid.
  2. Shake the pot constantly as popcorn pops.
  3. When popping slows to a few seconds in-between pops, after about 3 to 5 minutes, remove pot from heat and pour popcorn into a large bowl.
  4. Season with sea salt.

That's it!

The Bottom Line on Eating Popcorn During Keto

Popcorn is considered a grain and has a moderate level of carbohydrates across the board. It is delicious and can be healthy if prepared with natural and simple ingredients.

When eating popcorn on keto it is best to view popcorn as a "treat". In other words, you can definitely have it but make sure to keep your portion sizes small.

About the author
Nathan Phelps
Nathan Phelps is a foodie, writer, marketer, and musician living in the great city of Nashville, TN. He loves the intersection of healthy eating & science, and his daily activities include co-opting coffee shops as offices, morning optimism, afternoon doubt, and a nice swig of evening regret before bed.

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