Lights! Camera! Fat! Salt! Butter! - Better snacking options at summer movie blockbusters

By Mary Lee Chin, MS, RD
Better snacking options at summer movie blockbusters
It’s part of the movie experience to have popcorn and snacks while sitting in a darkened, air-conditioned theater. Sounds good to me, but then the food police side of me kicked in, with knowledge that a medium buttered popcorn and sugary soft drink can add up to over 1000-1500 calories.
July 2, 2012

I asked my young adult son if he wanted to come over for dinner. “Thanks but no” was the reply. He planned to beat the heat by going to an air-conditioned movie, and would pick up a meal at the theater.

A lot of movie goers are looking forward to spending time this summer with xenomorphic monsters, a vampire hunting president, men with the powers of spiders or bats and an archer princess. Summer finds people in a major movie mood as Hollywood rolls out blockbuster entertainment.

And it’s part of the movie experience to have popcorn and snacks while sitting in a darkened, air-conditioned theater during heat scorching days. Sounds good to me as local temperatures climb to over 100 degrees. But then the food police side of me kicked in, with knowledge that a medium buttered popcorn and sugary soft drink can add up to over 1000-1500 calories, while you just sit for almost 3 hours.

What is the reality? Well, we never really expect health food at the movies, right? And did anyone delude themselves in thinking that pumping yellow colored oil “butter” topping on the kernels counted as a dairy serving? Plus the average person goes to the movies only six times a year.

But how about our kids? The percentage of obese or overweight children is at or above 30 percent in 30 states, and continuing to trend upwards from Trust for America's Health’s annual report, F as in Fat: How Obesity Policies Are Failing in America. And many of our kids are the ones who will be hitting the theaters this summer.

And we love bargains. “Free Refill on Large Soda and Popcorn” and “The colossal tub comes with a complementary refill” claims to “defeat even the strongest appetites,” as well as add thousands of calories.

What we need are some options and reasonable recommendations. So an investigative visit to a number of movie theater concession stands is in order.

Better options

A trip to the concession stand at several of the major larger theaters discovered hot food: egg rolls, nachos, pizza, hot dogs, French fries and churros.  Nope, none of these will save you much in calories or trans fats over the large buttered popcorn---but you could opt for the large warm pretzel at 160 calories and 1.5 grams of fat. Oh, and skip the cinnamon sugar topping.

Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed ban on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces will institute portion control, at least in New York City. But at our local movie theaters, we can unfailingly find fishbowl sized containers of soda pop. A 44 oz. container of regular pop weighs in at 400 calories and an equivalent 27 teaspoons of sugar. A 64 oz. barrel? More than 750 calories and over a cup of sugar. Substitute diet pop or a bottle of water. Savings: a lot of calories and sugar.

Brightly colored packaged candy beckon. Boxes and bags are humungous: 3 to 5 ounces or more. If sweets are your treat, try candies like gummy animals, jelly beans, and the real licorice in Good & Plenty. Mouth puckering Sour Patch Kids candies will slow down how much you eat. But remember you are still getting a good sugar and calorie overload. Look for the few bars of really dark chocolate with at least 65% cacao. OK, dark chocolate, think anti-oxidants-- the sugar overload came with some anti-oxidants.

Instead of the Haagen Dazs bars (320 calories and 60% of your daily limit of saturated fat intake), or Dippin Dots (190 calories and 30% of your saturated fat intake), try the frozen lemonade cup or frozen strawberry lemonade cup (100 calories and 0% fat).

Share---Good advice, bad execution

The standard advice is to share. And movie theaters offer combo deals where you can share a large tub of popcorn and two pops. While we may have good intentions to share, if it is the large tub you could still be splitting up to 1200 calories and 60 grams of fat. Research has shown we eat what is there and the larger the portion, the more we eat.

Eating while absorbed in the movie only compounds the issue. When we are engrossed in a movie, our brains shut down, especially in the area of portion control. And while we think we can control how much we eat, the reality, as shown by research is that the vast majority of us can't.

Researchers gave movie goers different-sized popcorn buckets. Those with large buckets ate almost twice as much as those with medium buckets. In some of the large buckets, researchers replaced the fresh-popped with two-week-old stale popcorn.  Moviegoers with large buckets still mindlessly devoured 34 % more stale popcorn, than those with medium buckets of fresh corn.

Movie food is not tossed salad: Strategies

Make a pre-emptive strike, and eat before you go to the movies. Hunger will drive you to buy more and you will then eat more.

Opt for lower calorie options: Diet pop and bottled water.

Buy the small size. Ignore the combos, especially the huge tubs of popcorn along with two quarts of pop. And forget “upgrading” portions for a mere $1.00. You’ll be doubling unnecessary calories.

Resist the temptation for free refills of the large tub of popcorn and quart of pop—like these are the containers that we really need refilled anyhow!

Plan ahead and think it through--avoid being a mindless muncher.

Calculate how much this stuff costs. Just think, if you don’t spend the money on the snacks, you will have that much more to buy a ticket to another entertaining summer movie.


Mary Lee Chin, MS, RD is a registered dietitian in private practice at Nutrition Edge Communications, Denver, CO. She provides expert counsel to the Aspartame Resource Center.

Better snacking options at the movies

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