Weekly Column_120 / August 16, 2012

Getting Fat at the Movies

By Charles Platkin, PhD

About ten years ago, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) came out with the surprising news that going to the movies can pack on the pounds. We learned that movie popcorn, one of the prime suspects, was, in fact, very high in calories and fat — much higher than we thought. Many theater chains decided to change that and tested healthier oils. But even if a “good” oil is used, the popcorn is still loaded with calories and fat.

And by now, most theaters have switched back to the “bad” oils. According to CSPI, currently only two theater chains — Century and GKC — use a heart-healthy, non-hydrogenated canola oil to pop their popcorn. Five of the major theaters (AMC, Edwards, Hoyts, Regal, and United Artists) still use the dreaded coconut oil. Carmike, CineMark, Cineplex Odeon, Loews, Multiplex, Showcase, and Muvico use a slightly better partially hydrogenated (meaning with “bad” trans fats) canola oil.

These days, a large popcorn with butter, soda, and a bag of candy could add up to as much as 2,500 calories and more than three days’ worth of saturated fat. Even if you go to the movies ONLY once a month, you could gain as much as 8.5 pounds per year.

If it’s so bad, why do we eat so much when we go to the movies? How about because as you walk through the theater door, the smell of the popcorn and candy permeates the air?

“Something happens when the lights go off. It’s unexplainable. I’ve seen people who have obviously just come from the gym sit down and eat a big popcorn and oversized candy,” says Dan Griesmer, director of concession operations for Loews Cineplex.

What if theaters were to offer healthier snack choices? Many claim they’ve tried. In fact, Loews Cineplex has attempted to sell fruits, cold sandwiches, salads, and even energy bars to keep their captive audiences away from the evils of high-calorie treats — yet each time their efforts have failed. Apparently, fruits are not appetizing when placed next to big containers of popcorn.

You may be telling yourself, well, if my theater would just let me bring my own food from home, I wouldn’t eat so poorly. “Not so. Even though most theater policies do not allow audiences to bring in their own foods, the snacks coming in are definitely not diet-friendly,” remarks Griesmer. “At the end of a movie we’re always finding outside candy wrappers, KFC boxes filled with chicken bones, and other fast food remains — health foods are not the contraband food of choice.”

Here are some tips for the brave audience member who is willing to break the concession stand “addiction” cycle:

Okay, it’s not exactly cool with theater owners to sneak in foods (they make a huge chunk of their profits, about 40 percent, from concession sales), but until they start offering the good stuff, it may be your only option. Many theaters have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy when it comes to bringing in healthy snacks. “Our goal is not to police the theater for healthy foods. We’re there to serve the guest, and our primary concern is providing foods that people like,” says Dick Westerling, director of communications for Regal Cinemas.

If you’re new to snack-sneaking, start out by bringing foods that don’t smell and won’t get crushed when they’re shoved in your bag. Focus on foods that are filling and low in calories so that you can mindlessly munch on them throughout the movie, just like popcorn. Since we’re probably not really paying attention to the taste anyway, I wonder how many of us would know the difference if our movie popcorn was replaced by Kashi cereal or even a bag of cut up vegetables? Just try it once and see if you notice.

The following are a few snacks that might be worth sneaking into your theater:

  • Homemade air-popped popcorn in a Ziploc bag — at only 30 calories per cup, it’s a good deal.
  • Cereal — Kashi (a variety of healthy versions) or Cheerios are both low-calorie choices that are pretty durable.
  • Beef jerky — especially if you’re an Atkins fan.
  • Fruit — apples are not easily crushed when hidden in your bag. Cut them into slices at home because crunching on a big apple can be annoying to other theatergoers. Grapes are another convenient fruit to bring. Avoid bananas, which are more fragile and can get very mushy, not to mention the peel you’d need to deal with.
  • Rice cakes — be careful because calorie and fat content varies widely.
  • Energy bars — although they are not the greatest in terms of calories and fat, they are still a bit better than those king-size chocolate bars (which are made for two) at the candy counter.

    Don’t Bring:

  • Trail Mix — it’s very high in calories and fat.
  • Potato chips or stix — they’re also high fat, and there’s the crush-factor, too.
  • Nuts — nibbling on these will bring your calories through the roof.
  • Crackers — you’ll just be left with crumbs once you’re inside, and lots of calories when you leave.
  • Sandwiches — too messy, but if you do, watch the mayo!

What a novel idea! Stuff yourself with healthy, low-calorie foods before you actually go to the movies so you just can’t eat another bite. You can also drink water during the movies, but that could impact your enjoyment of the entire film — with all those bathroom breaks.

We rationalize our snack food purchases by saying that we’ll share them. How much harm can a pack of M&Ms do divided amongst three or four people? But when the lights go out, automatic eating is in full color, and we tend to be less altruistic when it comes to our popcorn and candy. “We end up eating whatever we buy, and just because there are two or three people in a group doesn’t mean the food is equally dispersed,” says New York City nutritionist, Shira Isenberg, R.D. She recommends buying smaller quantities at the beginning of the show. If you happen to run out — if you’re really desperate, you can miss part of the movie and get more — at least you’re getting some exercise. Let your movie partner hold onto the package — you’ll end up eating less if it’s not right there in your lap.

It’s misleading to just look at the calories per serving on the food label — how many of us actually count out one serving and put the rest away? In all likelihood, you’ll eat the whole package, no matter how many people it’s supposed to serve. And most theaters keep the candy in those glass cases, so you can’t even compare the nutritional content of different types. (And imagine the looks you’ll get if you start inspecting each one of the candy labels.)

Keep in mind, smaller is not always better. Although cotton candy comes in the largest size package, it has the fewest calories (300 in a 2.5 oz bag) and has no fat and 74g carbs. It also takes a lot longer to eat than other bagged candies, so it will keep your mouth busy.

Compare this to the movie-version of Reese’s pieces (8 oz), which has a whopping 1200 calories, 60g fat, 138g carbs. Those Twizzlers look tempting with their claim “As Always A Low Fat Candy,” but the six-ounce package holds 600 calories, 4g fat, 136g carbs.

And look at that bag of Skittles. It might look like a healthier option with only two grams of fat per serving, but the 6.75 oz bag has four and a half servings and 765 calories, 9g fat, 166.5g carbs. Choosing a box of Junior Mints (320 calories, 5g fat, 68g carbs), Milk Duds (340 calories, 12g fat, 56g carbs), or Sno-Caps (360 calories, 16g fat, 60g carbs) is a better bet. Surprisingly, Raisinets (380 calories, 16g fat, 64g carbs) are lower in calories than Gummi Bears (390 calories, 0g fat, 90g carbs) — although the Bears are fat-free.

If you must, save yourself some money and calories by dashing into the nearest drugstore or food mart, and buying a smaller-sized pack of candy. Or order a small popcorn without butter — you’ll get by just fine. A hot pretzel with mustard can even be a better deal than some of the candy options, and more satisfying too (1 large pretzel: 495 calories, 4g fat, 100g carbs).

If none of these suggestions works, consider one reader’s thoughts on the subject: “Why can’t we try to shut our mouths for 120 minutes, instead of stuffing our faces at every possible opportunity? I mean, who wants to listen to a hundred people scarfing chips, popcorn, or baby carrots for that matter? I’d prefer to sit in the peace and quiet of my home rather than listen to this massive feeding orgy, personally.”

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