Is Popcorn Keto-Friendly?

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Written by Vanessa Roberts, Keto Expert and medically reviewed by Abby Courtenay

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If you close your eyes and imagine the smell of popcorn, your associative memory will likely whisk you away to a dark theater with red cushioned seats and a silver screen. You may even hear the roar of the MGM lion. 

But this bite-sized treat isn’t just for the movies. It’s actually one of the world’s most popular snack foods. So it stands to reason that when following a ketogenic diet, sooner or later you have to bite the bullet and find out if it is allowed. 

This page will answer common questions about this beloved food, including if popcorn is safe for keto, what micro and macronutrients it has, how much popcorn you can eat on the ketogenic diet, important things to know about the different types and flavors, and keto-friendly alternatives.

 

What is popcorn?

The history of this satisfying snack food goes back more than 5,000 years. Archaeologists have found ancient remains of it in Mexico, Peru, and the United States. 

The variety of corn used for popping is different from the type that we normally eat cooked (like corn on the cob). This type is special because it has a specific moisture level when dried. When the dried kernels are heated to about 400 °F (200 °C), the moisture inside is converted to steam. This creates enough pressure for the kernel to explode inside out, which turns it into a white, puffy, edible treat. Yum!

When considering whether to eat popcorn on keto, the first question that comes to mind is:

Does popcorn have carbs?

Yes, it does have carbs. Exactly how many depends on how much you eat, and whether you add toppings or seasonings. The nutritional information below will help you determine if and how you can make popcorn keto-friendly.

 

Popcorn nutrition facts

As a whole grain, this food is very nutritious. It is high in fiber and rich in antioxidants and minerals, such as iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, and zinc. Along with being healthy, it is low in calories, very filling, and satisfying to eat thanks to its crunch.

Serving size: 2 cups (16 grams) air-popped, plain. Equal to 1 tablespoon of kernels.

  • Calories: 62 Kcal
  • Fat: 0.7 g
  • Net carbs (total carbs - fiber): 10.1 g
  • Total carbs: 12.4 g
  • Fiber: 2.3 g
  • Protein: 2.1 g

As you can see, there are 10.1 gram of net carbs in a 2-cup serving, or 5.1 grams of net carbs per 1 cup of plain popped popcorn.

Do keep in mind that this information is for plain kernels and does not include any toppings.

 

JUMPSTART YOUR KETO GOALS

 

Can you eat popcorn on a keto diet?

Yes, popcorn is a relatively low-carb snack that can be good for keto, as long as you are careful to control the portion size.

That can be tricky since it is so crispy, crunchy and fun to eat.

Before you start munching, decide how many carbs you can spare that day without reaching your daily total. Don’t make more than you want to have: it’s hard to resist temptation when you know it’s sitting in the kitchen waiting for you! If you’re sharing the snack, simply measure out your portion and put it in a separate bowl.

You also need to think about toppings and added ingredients. Eating it plain is one thing, but adding flavors is quite another. We go over the different types to eat or avoid below.

 

How much popcorn can you eat on the keto diet?

The amount you can safely fit into your diet depends on what your personal daily carb limit is (calculate yours here) and what else you eat that day. 

If you aim to eat less than 50 grams of net carbs each day, you can probably get away with consuming 2 cups of plain popcorn (10.1 grams of net carbs). 

If you’re eating less than 30 grams of net carbs a day, you could consider having just 1 cup, with 5.1 g of net carbs. However, it can be difficult to eat such a small amount, so you may be better off avoiding this food altogether.

Here’s a trick: savor each puff one by one instead of tossing them in your mouth by the handful. This mindful way of eating is more enjoyable and will make your snack last longer.

 

What kind of popcorn can you have on keto?

Just because popcorn is keto-friendly doesn’t mean you can pour carmel, honey, chocolate syrup, or other sugary toppings all over it. Remember that sugar is a carb, and not the healthy kind! Each teaspoon you add will increase your carb count by at least 4 g.

That means you should probably take the following off your list:

  • Kettle corn is made with added sugar and typically has at least twice as many net carbs as regular popcorn. It also has more calories. Since it is often served at fairs or amusement parks, it can be difficult to know the exact number of kettle corn carbs.
  • Caramel corn is made with brown sugar and corn syrup, so that’s a double no. 
  • Movie theater popcorn is not a very keto-friendly option either. Why? First, the serving sizes are monstrous. (Word to the wise: anything served in a “bucket” or “tub” is generally not going to be a healthy choice.) And even if you look up the carbs in movie theater popcorn on the theater’s website and manage to eat only a small amount, what you’re eating is still full of sodium and saturated fats. Both of which should be limited in a healthy diet. Did you know that movie theater butter isn’t even made from real butter? It’s actually made from partially hydrogenated oil (a type of trans fat), preservatives, and artificial coloring. In summary: not great for your health.
  • Microwave popcorn and other store-bought mixes have similar issues: saturated fat, sodium, artificial flavorings, and added sweeteners.

The best popcorn for keto is made at home, where you have full control and knowledge of what you’re eating.

To make this snack tastier (and more filling) why not toss your popcorn in some extra virgin olive oil (or butter if you prefer), a sprinkle of salt and some of your favorite herbs and spices.

So you can eat ‘buttered’ popcorn on the keto diet! Just use real butter or a minimally processed plant fat like extra virgin olive oil, not the fake stuff made from chemicals that you’ll find at the movie theater. 1 tablespoon of butter has 0 carbs and 102 calories.

 

BUILD YOUR KETO DIET PLAN

 

Keto-friendly popcorn alternatives

One of the keys to healthy eating is not to have the same thing every day. It’s important for your body to get different types of nutrients throughout the week. 

It is also better for your gut health to eat a diverse assortment of foods. This encourages the growth of healthy bacteria that can strengthen your immune system and improve digestion.

When following a ketogenic diet, it may be tempting to stick with a certain snack, especially once you already know the macros. But it pays off to branch out. If you eat the same thing too often, you will soon tire of it and not want to eat it at all. 

When looking for a keto alternative to popcorn, think about some of the defining characteristics that make it so loveable. It’s quick and easy to prepare. Each piece is bite-sized. It crunches when you bite down. It is not drippy or messy, so it’s easy to eat with your eyes glued to the screen.

With these in mind, here are some good keto substitutes for your next movie night:

  • Celery sticks
  • Dill pickles
  • Pork rinds
  • Pumpkin seeds
  • Walnuts

 

FAQ about popcorn on a keto diet

Still got some questions about how to incorporate this tasty snack into your diet? Take a look at the answers to some frequently asked questions.

It depends on what type of flavoring it is. Sweet flavors should generally be avoided as they contain added sugars, which are not permitted on keto. Many salty or savory flavors are also made with artificial ingredients, which should also be limited. Natural toppings, like spices, herbs, or healthy fats, are best.

Want to try something new? Sprinkle cinnamon, curry powder, paprika, or oregano and red pepper flakes on top. You can also add nuts and seeds for a snack with different textures and flavors, almost like a popcorn trail mix!

Buy plain corn kernels, not a pre-packaged bag with additives and preservatives. Cook at home using one of these 3 methods:

  • Microwave
  1. Place kernels in a paper bag and fold bag down twice.
  2. Microwave on high for 3.5 minutes, but do not leave unattended.
  3. After 2 minutes, listen to hear when 2 seconds pass between each pop.
  4. At this point, turn the timer off and remove bag.
  5. Open carefully and serve in a bowl.
  • Stove top
  1. Heat oil in a pot over medium heat.
  2. Add 2 or 3 kernels, cover with lid, and wait a few minutes until they pop.
  3. Add the rest of the kernels and remove from heat. 
  4. Cover and gently shake pot around to evenly distribute the kernels.
  5. Let rest for 30 to 60 seconds.
  6. Put pot back on heat and wait for kernels to pop. 
  7. Shake pot gently from time to time to cook evenly. 
  8. When majority are popped and several seconds pass between each pop, remove from heat and serve in a bowl.
  • Air popper 
  • Buy one for under 20 dollars.

Keto-friendly is a relative term, so it depends on what your daily carb limit is and what other carbs you eat during the same day.

Homemade popcorn has about 5.1 net grams of carbs per cup. You can adjust your serving size accordingly to help it fit your diet.

Don’t forget to count the carbs and calories in any toppings you add.

It depends on your portion. 2 cups of plain popped kernels only contain about 10.1 grams of net carbohydrates (or 12.4 g total carbs).

However, it’s easy to consume more than that, especially if you are blindly reaching into a bag and eating it by the handful. To control how much you´re eating, measure out the correct amount and place it in a separate bowl.

Yes, and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is best. 

However, if you are looking at pre-packaged bags, you must also consider other factors, not just the type of oil. Check the full list of ingredients to determine if it is a healthy option.

Pre-packaged, processed food is not very good for keto. Most contain artificial ingredients, preservatives, and/or trans fats. If you can’t pronounce it, it’s probably not good for you. 

Check the labels and see for yourself!

  • Orville Redenbacher’s: even the Naturals Simply Salted flavor has partially hydrogenated soybean oil, which contains trans fats.
  • Act II “Butter Flavor”: contains palm oil, added color, TBHQ (a synthetic preservative), and citric acid.
  • Cousin Willie’s “Simply Better White Cheddar”: has partially hydrogenated soybean oil, artificial cheddar and blue cheese flavors and enzyme modified cheese, mono-sodium glutamate, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, soy lecithin. 
  • Barcel Pop Fuego: contains artificial flavors, maltodextrin, hydrolyzed soy protein, monosodium glutamate, artificial colors, TBHQ.

That said, some brands have a reasonable amount of net carbs that will allow you to fit small amounts into your keto diet. Just keep these as a very occasional treat since our main aim is to eat whole, minimally processed foods, most of the time.

It is much better for keto to buy plain kernels and pop them yourself. That way, you can add just the ingredients that you want, in amounts that you can control. 

If you want convenience on the go or in the theater, put your homemade puffs in a ziplock bag and take it with you!

 

More ketogenic snack ideas

  • Beef jerky
  • Dark chocolate
  • Quest protein bars