Take in the “Sneak Peeks,” But Not the “Sneak Eats,” While at the Movies

Tub of theater popcorn with two movie ticketsEven if we’re not afflicted with cabin fever to the same degree Jack exhibited in “The Shining,” you have to admit it sometimes gets boring during the winter months watching TV reruns or being bundled up in a Snuggie by 8 p.m. I know I find myself more restless than usual at this time of year. One way I like to conquer the doldrums is by braving the elements and heading out to a movie theater. Not only do I enjoy a good movie, I also appreciate the brief change of scenery — mentally and physically.

There is one  potential pitfall with this theatrical escape, however,and that pitfall is concession stand food. Unfortunately for those of us who are nutrition and calorie-conscious, popcorn and candy have become almost synonymous with the movie experience. Sure, a little isn’t going to set us back, but I can’t remember a time when I only ate a handful of popcorn at a theater or a few M&M’s if it’s in front of me.  I usually get so caught up with what’s going on, if a bag of popcorn or the box of candy “lands” on my lap, it becomes history about  1/2 hour into the film. Mindless eating at it’s finest, for sure!

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) did analyses on theatre food offered at three major theater chains: Regal, AMC and Cinemark. Their findings even startled me.

According to the CSPI, Regal and AMC are the two top nominees for “Best Supporting Actor in the Obesity Epidemic.” Unfortunately for their patrons, Cinemark, and mostly all the other movie theaters, aren’t lagging far behind with their food offerings.

“Who expects about 1,500 calories and three days’ worth of heart-stopping fat in a popcorn and soda combo? That’s the saturated fat of a stick of butter and the calories of two sticks of butter. You might think you’re getting Bambi, but you’re really getting Godzilla,” said CSPI senior nutritionist Jayne Hurley.

Since AMC operates theaters in both Michigan and Ontario, regions within my Weight Watchers franchise, I would like to share more on what CSPI has to say about AMC’s fare. (For the record, Regal theaters actually scored worse.)

CSPI studies show that a large popcorn at the AMC chain contains 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. They go onto say, “It’s like eating a pound of baby back ribs topped with a scoop of Häagen-Dazs ice cream—except that the popcorn has an additional day’s worth of saturated fat. A medium has 590 calories and 33 grams of saturated fat; and a small has 370 calories and a day’s worth—20 grams—of saturated fat.”

Wow, who would have thought that theater popcorn contained that many calories and grams of fat!

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to theater candy. Any type of candy is typically calorie-dense and practically nutrient-empty. Chocolate varieties give us a triple-whammy because they are also high in fat. We all know that candy is not the healthiest food choice in the world, but when offered in oversized boxes and bags, on average 4-5 ounces at most movie concession stands, my advice is, “Back away from the counter and no one gets hurt!”

Again, according to the CSPI: A 5-ounce bag of Twizzlers has 460 calories and 15 teaspoons of sugar. A 7-ounce box of Nerds has 790 calories and 46 teaspoons of sugar. Chocolate candies like Butterfinger Minis, Raisinets, Sno-Caps, or M&M’s have between 400 and 500 calories and at least a half day’s worth of saturated fat. An 8-ounce bag of Reese’s Pieces is just a cup of candy. But with 1,160 calories and 35 grams of saturated fat, it’s like eating a 16-ounce T-bone steak plus a buttered baked potato.

“Sitting through a two-hour movie isn’t exactly like climbing Mt. Everest,” said Hurley. “Why do theaters think they need to feed us like it is?”

She makes an important point that we often overlook. Excessive caloric intake and nutrient-empty, high-fat food choices contribute to the obesity epidemic we are faced with. This epidemic knows no age, gender, class or ethnicity; it affects all segments of our population. Our activity level, as a society, has also dwindled. We commute, we sit in front of a computer monitor or TV, we have all kinds of tools that make life easier (and less active) than a generation ago. The result: an obesogenic society.  We have to become educated and aware about the foods we eat and how the body processes it. We also have to move more and eat less of the unhealthier food, each and every chance we get. Yep, even at the movies.

So, in order to live a healthier lifestyle, we need to look for these opportunities to do our body right. Whether we go to the theater to see “Tron,” “Tangled,” or”The King’s Speech,” now that CSPI has educated us more about concession foods, we need to not only think about how you’re going to overcome the theatre food debacle we will face, but also how we can overcome it.

These strategies work for me:

DON’T GO HUNGRY – Eat a filling, healthy snack or meal before leaving the house.

POP YOUR OWN  – Microwave a bag of  94% fat-free, butter-flavored popcorn at home and put it in your bag or pocket. Most theaters don’t exactly encourage this, but you’d be surprised at how many don’t really care, especially if you purchase a diet drink or bottle of water. Just for comparison’s sake: 5 cups of Jolly Time Healthy Pop Butter popcorn counts as only 3 PointsPlus™ value and is a Power Food!

FOOL YOUR SWEET TOOTH – Instead of  falling for the concession candy, bring along a healthier snack bar alternative or even a low-fat granola bar. You can also opt to bring along some hard-tack candy. Five Altoid s Tangerine sours are 0 PointsPlus values and one entire package of Weight Watchers Fruities count as 1 PointsPlus value.

KEEP YOUR HANDS TO YOURSELF – If you’re going with a friend or partner, you probably have no control on what they purchase. Fight the temptation to share their popcorn or candy. Lose yourself in the movie. Chew a stick of gum. Sip on your water, sugar-free iced tea, or diet pop. Sit on your hands. Do whatever it takes to stay away from food you don’t really want and your body doesn’t need.

DON’T HANG OUT IN THE LOBBY – Candy, popcorn, nachos…enough said? No? Then think about the hit your wallet is going to take? Theater food is expensive! Spend that money on something else you enjoy..like a ticket to another movie!


Center for Science in the Public Interest, news release, “Two Thumbs Down’ for Movie Theater Popcorn,” www.cspinet.org/new/200911182.html, retrieved 12/29/10.

Weight Watchers Complete Food Companion, PointsPlus, 2010 edition