Popcorn and Bodybuilding: All Your Questions Answered

Popcorn is legit my favorite food—I’m not exaggerating at all. So, as I’ve gone through my journey with weight-lifting, I’ve definitely eaten a bunch of it. I’ve fit it into my macros during cuts and bulks, and I’ve researched how it stacks up against other snack foods.

Popcorn is a great food to include in your diet as a bodybuilder, if done correctly. Popcorn itself is low in calories and high in fiber, making it ideal for cutting. The complex carbs make it a great pre-workout snack. You can even make “protein popcorn” for extra muscle-building potential.

However, there are a few pitfalls you need to avoid. Below, I’ll share my #1 tip for eating popcorn while cutting (it’s pretty clever). I’ll also rank all the different kinds of popcorn from least healthy to most healthy, to help you choose!

Is Popcorn Good for Building Muscle?

Like I mentioned above, popcorn is potentially a great food to include in your diet as a bodybuilder—but only if done correctly.

Let’s quickly cover the main points before digging deep into the details:

  • As long as it’s not soaked in butter, popcorn has a low caloric density. This makes it ideal for cutting, as the fiber and puffed grain can help fill you up on fewer calories.
  • Popcorn provides a moderate amount of protein, similar to other grains.
  • Recipes exist for “protein popcorn,” which transform popcorn into an extra bodybuilding-friendly snack.
  • Popcorn is a good choice for a pre-workout snack, as it’s a convenient way to eat a few hundred calories of complex carbs.
  • Be mindful of portion size, oil, butter, and other additives. I’ll help you choose the healthiest kinds of popcorn below.

Alright, let’s start with popcorn and cutting—I have some really good tips on this topic…

Can I Eat Popcorn While Cutting?

Popcorn can be a smart choice while cutting, especially if eaten without excess butter and oil. As a whole grain, popcorn is low in calories and high in fiber. Air-popped popcorn is the best choice, as it lower in calories due to the lack of oil.

Personally, I always eat popcorn while cutting. It’s one of my favorite foods, and I’ve found that even a decent sized bowl can only come out to ~300 or 400 calories.

I feel like popcorn allows me the feeling of “indulging” while dieting, even with just a couple hundred calories. It’s usually more filling and lower in calories than chips and other salty snacks.

However, don’t overdo it! Watch your portions. If you go to the movie theater and get a tub of popcorn, that could easily be 1,000+ calories, if not 2,000+ for the larger sizes.

If you make popcorn without oil, that will be the lowest in calories. You can do this with an air popper like this one I have and swear by. Or you can pop it in a bowl like this one in the microwave.

Popcorn cutting tip: Don’t grab a whole handful of popcorn at a time with your whole hand. Instead, just pick up one kernel at a time with your thumb and finger. If you do this, it lasts much longer—and you feel fuller, even with smaller portions.

Can Popcorn Make You Gain Weight?

If you eat large portions of popcorn with oil and butter, it could lead to weight gain. However, it would depend on your overall calorie balance. There is nothing specifically “fattening” about popcorn. Only an overall calorie surplus will cause fat storage.

When it comes to movie theater popcorn, there is a high risk of overeating and going over on calories. The butter and the large containers result in a lot of calories.

When it comes to buttery microwave popcorn, there is still some risk of eating too many calories, but the portion size is usually limited by the size of the bags—so it’s not quite as out of control.

If you eat oil-free popcorn using an air popper like this one, or a microwave bowl like this, then you will almost never overeat popcorn. That’s because the caloric density is much lower when it’s not cooked with oil. You can eat a huge bowl, and it’s still not many calories.

Is Popcorn High in Protein?

Popcorn has a similar amount of protein as other grains like rice, pasta, and whole-kernel corn. For each 100 calories, you’ll get about 2 or 3 grams of protein, depending on what kind of popcorn you’re eating.

For my typical popcorn serving (1/3 cup of kernels, popped with 1 tablespoon of oil), it contains 7 grams of protein in a 350-calorie bowl of popcorn. So, that won’t replace a major protein source, but it’s a nice little extra protein.

But if you want more protein in your popcorn, I have some good news for you…

“Protein Popcorn.” Yes, It Exists.

Typically, “protein popcorn” refers to various ways of drizzling a sweet flavored mix with protein powder onto popcorn. There are tons of ways to do it!

Here are just a few of the variations out there:

Just be mindful of any “junk” ingredients you add when making protein popcorn. Some of these recipes may contain sugar, dairy products, or other things you might choose to avoid for reasons besides macros.

Is Popcorn a Good Pre-Workout Snack?

Popcorn is a good pre-workout snack because it provides complex carbohydrates for slow-burning energy. Also, you can conveniently eat just a few hundred calories, so you’re not too stuffed.

Carbs are helpful before a workout, as they are a main source of energy. Even people who eat low-carb diets will often strategically eat carbs before their workout.

That said, you don’t really want simple sugars before a workout. Your body burns sugar quickly, and the flood of insulin can lead your blood-sugar levels to “crash” back down after the high. This can make you tired during your workout. (source)

So complex carbs, including whole grains like popcorn, are a great choice for a pre-workout snack. In fact, many articles online sharing lists of great pre-workout snacks include popcorn as a recommended choice.

Which Kind of Popcorn Should I Eat vs Avoid?

It can be hard to generalize about whether popcorn is “healthy” or “fattening” or “good for bodybuilding”… because popcorn comes in so many forms. And the nutrition differs so much!

So, to help you map out the popcorn landscape, here are 7 popular ways people eat popcorn—ranked from least healthy to most healthy:

  • Worst: Movie theater popcorn with added butter
  • Movie theater popcorn without butter
  • Microwave popcorn with butter and additives
  • Microwave popcorn with fewer ingredients (just oil, salt, popcorn)
  • Pre-popped bags of popcorn (Skinny Pop, Boom Chicka Pop, etc)
  • Stove-popped popcorn with oil
  • Best: Air-popped popcorn (no oil)

Now, this is obviously not a very scientific ranking system—I’m not citing any specific brands or numbers. This is just to give you a general sense of what is usually healthier.

Remember: Most of the calories in popcorn come from the fat, meaning the oil and butter. Therefore, if there’s no butter, it’s usually lower in calories. Removing the butter also removes saturated fat, which makes popcorn more heart-healthy.

Then if you also remove the oil, popcorn becomes even lower in calories, making it healthier yet. Again, I recommend using an air popper like this one to make oil-free popcorn at home, particularly while you’re cutting.

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