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Blockbuster Movies & Gutbuster Food
How to cut calories the next time you visit the cinema.

It's easy to eat too much in a dark theatre.

The smell of popcorn. The rows of chocolate and candy. Giant cups full of sweet soda. That's what's waiting for you every time you walk into a movie theatre. If you're trying to cut down on your calories, it can be a dietary disaster. Here's how to avoid all that temptation and still see the latest films.

Take control before you ever get to the theatre. Follow the same rule as before you go shopping. Eat something first, so you don't arrive hungry. If you're going to an early show, plan on what you'll eat afterward so you don't binge when you get home.

When you're ready to go, bring along a protein or low-fat granola bar to snack on during the film. You could also pack a small Ziploc bag of carrots, celery, orange slices or grapes. (Keep in mind some theatres don't allow outside food so this may not be an option.)

Once you get to the theatre, popcorn is the most critical thing to control. If you make a bowl of microwave popcorn at home, the average serving size is 2 cups. It holds about 90 calories and 5 grams of fat. That's far too much fat to be considered healthy, but with just 90 calories, it's probably not going to do any kind of damage to your diet. That's not true for movie popcorn.

A small popcorn in most theatre chains holds about 9 cups. That's 405 calories and 22 grams of fat. Add butter, and you can quickly push the calorie count past 550 calories and the fat over 30 grams. Remember, that's just a small!

Order a typical large popcorn and you're looking at 22 cups and at least 1,000 calories. Add butter, and that large popcorn may end up holding 1,500 calories and more than 65 grams of fat. Three full meals in a bag, with nothing to show for it but empty calories.

As scary as that is, in the age of mega food, there's always something bigger. Some theatres now offer a tub of popcorn that tops out at an astonishing 30+ cups. If you add butter, a tub can hold more than 2,000 calories and give you two full days of fat.

To make matters worse, the size of the popcorn containers entice us to eat even more. Researchers in Philadelphia randomly gave moviegoers free popcorn in large and extra-large containers. The people who got the extra-large containers ate 45-50% more than those with just the large containers.

There was a twist. Half of the moviegoer's popcorn was fresh and half was ten days old. Incredibly, even those who received the stale popcorn ate 40-45% more if they got it in a larger container.

The secret to eating less may be as simple as a small brown paper lunch bag. Here's what you do. If you can't watch a movie without popcorn, first decide how many cups it's OK for you to eat. Keep in mind each cup holds a minimum of 45 calories. If you're with a group of friends, ask them how many cups they want. Then add up the total number of cups and buy the size of popcorn that matches. Smalls typically hold 9 cups, a medium is about 15 and a large is around 22.

Once you've got your popcorn, all you have to do is split it up between each of the brown paper bags. The smaller bags help control your eating urges and the measured portion virtually guarantees you won't eat more than you had planned. The bonus is everyone saves money by sharing popcorn.

How you order your drink is the next challenge. In many theaters, a "small" soda is a full 32 ounces. The large cups hold as much as 86 ounces. (By comparison, when you buy a can of soda, you're typically getting 12 ounces.) If you buy a regular Coca-Cola, that 32 ounce "small" has 388 calories and nearly one and a half days of sugar...108 grams. Order the large and you're holding an unbelievable 1043 calories and 290 grams of sugar.

Step away from the regular sodas. If you want something carbonated, choose one of the diet drinks. They don't have sugar and most are calorie-free. If you're trying to save money, bring along some collapsible camping cups and split a large drink with your family and friends.

If you don't want soda, punch up a bottle of water. Most theatres carry bottled water; you just have to bring along handy "to go" pouches of Crystal Light or Wylers. Pour a pouch in the bottle of water and you can have zero calorie ice tea, peach, raspberry, orange or lemonade drinks. The theatre still makes their money on the water and you get a healthier alternative to carbonated sugar-filled soda.

Candy Bar

Candy is the next hurdle. Like popcorn, the bags of candy sold at many movie theatres have been supersized. If you didn't or couldn't bring along some kind of health or protein bar, and you've got to have some candy, split it with someone. Just like you brought bags for the popcorn, carry some small plastic bags for the candy. Open the package and split it between 2, 3 or 4 people so everyone gets a little to enjoy.

Make sure you're always ready.

  • Protein, granola bars or snacks.
  • Brown paper bags for the popcorn.
  • Small plastic bags for the candy.
  • Collapsible cups for the soda.
  • Drink additives (like Crystal Light or Wylers).

Then, every time you head to the theatre, your portion control help is right at hand. The secret is not depriving yourself. Just take a couple of minutes to plan ahead. Your body will thank you and so will your wallet.

The Ugly Trans-Fat Secret

If you're lucky enough to live in a town where there's more than one theatre, here's one way you can choose which one will get your business. In 1994 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) surveyed theatres to find out what they cooked their popcorn in. They found that seven out of ten theatres used coconut oil.

No problem, right? Wrong. A kid-sized bag of popcorn cooked in coconut oil had 20 grams of fat, with 14 of them heart-clogging saturated fat. CSPI found that a large bag of popcorn had 80 grams of fat, 50 of them saturated. That's the same amount of saturated fat as six McDonald's Big Mac's! All of those were without the optional "buttery" topping.

News stations ran the headlines and theatres around the country started switching to heart healthier canola oil. But there's a catch. Some were using canola oil. Others used canola shortening or partially hydrogenated canola oil. The difference is important.

Canola oil has no trans fat. However, when you partially hydrogenate canola oil or change it into a shortening, you introduce trans fats. It's still a healthier option than coconut oil, but not by much. Trans fats are so unhealthy that there are no acceptable amounts people should eat.

So how are the theatres doing today?

In April 2008, we asked five national chains and one local cinema in Key West Florida what they cooked their popcorn in. The oils each one use is below. If you've got a choice, choose the one that uses heart healthier canola oils first.

What does your favorite theatre cook it's popcorn in?

AMC Theatres Coconut Oil - BAD

Carmike Cinemas Partially Hydrogenated Canola Oil - BETTER

Cinemark Canola OIl - BEST

Landmark Theatres NEVER RESPONDED TO OUR EMAILS - Do you know?

Regal Entertainment Group Coconut Oil - BAD

Tropic Cinema Canola Oil - BEST

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