Mystery, intrigue, horroryou go to the movies hoping to get these on the big screen, not at the concession stand. But don’t let the calorie counts of theater treats ruin your night, there are smart ways to snack at the movies.
“There’s no getting around the fact that you’re going to eat junk when you go to a movie theater,” says Paul Kriegler, RD, corporate dietitian for Life Time Fitness, headquartered in Chanhassen, Minnesota. “You definitely don’t want to go [to the movies] hungry, and whatever you do order you’re going to want to share with friends.”
Here’s what to pick (and skip) before your flick.
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Water or unsweetened iced tea
It seems obvious, but many people overlook good old H2O at the movies, where giant cups of fountain soda are the favorite tradition. Luckily, bottled water is readily available at most theaters today, or you may even be able to ask for a cup of plain water from the soda machine.
Need something with more pizzaz? Opt for unsweetened iced tea, seltzer, or a zero-calorie flavored water, like Dasani Lemon or Raspberry.
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Large soda with free refills
Sizes vary by chain, but large sodas can be up to 54 ouncesand that’s not counting the free refill you get at AMC Theaters. In a 2012 Consumer Reports study, large movie theater sodas contained between 384 and 696 calories, and 96 to 174 grams (22 to 44 teaspoons!) of sugar.
Think you’re in the clear by choosing diet? Not so fast: People who drink diet sodas are more likely to be obese than those who don’t, and artificial sweeteners have been linked to diabetes and other health problems. “It’s tough to endorse either diet or regular sodait’s like picking between two different cigarette brands,” says Kriegler. If you’re going to splurge, make it the smallest size possible, and make it an occasional treat.
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Small with no toppings or real butter
Choose the smallest size popcorn available, says Kriegler, and go easy on the salt and toppings.
Even with a small, you’ll likely want to split it with a friend. Regal, the country’s largest theater chain, reports that their small popcorn contains 670 calories and 34 g saturated fat. AMC, the No. 2 chain, serves a smaller option: 370 calories, but still a day’s worth of saturated fat (20 g).
Cinemark Theaters, the third largest chain, is your best bet when it comes to popcorn: Their kernels are popped in non-hydrogenated canola oil, which is much lower in saturated fat than its rivals’ choice of coconut oil, and is offered in a Junior Bag for only 200 calories, 11 g fat, and only 1 g saturated fat.
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Large with butter flavoring
Tests done in 2009 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) found nutritional numbers to be higher than advertised for most products it tested, including a large popcorn at Regal (1,200 calories and 60 g saturated fat, according to tests); AMC (1,030 calories and 57 g saturated fat, not counting the free refill!); and Cinemark (910 calories and 4 g saturated fat). Every tablespoon of buttery topping adds about another 130 calories.
And although Cinemark’s large popcorn was the lowest in calories and saturated fat, it contained the most sodium: 1,500 mg, or an entire day’s worth for most people.
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Best savory snack
Soft pretzel, no cheese
Regal Cinema’s Bavarian pretzel contains 480 caloriesless than most popcorns or candy boxes, but still more than enough snack to split with the person next to you. Their pretzel bits are slightly better, with 370 calorieswithout the cheese dipping sauce on the side.
Soft pretzels are notoriously high in sodium, as well, so you may want to ask for one with less salt, or brush most of it off into a trash can before showtime.
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Worst savory snack
Fried corn chips smothered in gooey cheese sauce are pretty much a nutritional nightmare: Regal Cinemas’ version contains 780 calories, while AMC’s contains 554 calories and 30 g fat (10 g saturated). Plus, they’re high in cholesterol and sodiumbad news for your waistline and your heart.
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Best chocolate candy
Sno-Caps, 3.1-ounce box
Split this box of semisweet nonpareils with a friend and you’ll each down 180 calories, 8 g fat (5 g saturated), and 24 g sugar. (That’s 360 calories if you eat the whole thing yourself.) It’s certainly not the best snack option out there, but at the theater you could also do much worse.
“If you know you’re going to treat yourself to something really sugary, the best thing you can do is exercise before you go,” says Kriegler. “For about 12 hours after a strenuous workout, your body will be a little more sensitive to using sugar from that junk food to replenish energy stores.” Doing intervals or a hard strength-training workout before hitting the theater can help minimize the damage done, he addsjust don’t let it turn into an excuse to pig out even further.
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Worst chocolate candy
M&Ms, 3.4-ounce box
A theater-sized box of milk chocolate M&Ms states its nutrition info clearly on the box: 210 calories! But look a little closer and you’ll see the small print beneath those numbers: “per serving,” and “2.5 servings per pack.” In reality, that’s 525 calories in each box, along with 68 grams of sugar and 22 grams of fat (12 grams saturated).
Choosing Peanut M&Ms over regular means slightly more total calories and fat, but less sugar and saturated fat. Don’t be fooled by other healthier-sounding varieties, however, like peanut butter or dark chocolate: “The quality of nuts and seeds and cocoa used in these candies are so far removed from the natural, good-for-you ingredients, it’s not worth considering their health benefits,” says Kriegler.
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Best Peanut-Butter Candy
Butterfinger Minis, 3.5-ounce box
A full package of these “crispety, crunchety, peanut-buttery” candies adds up to 450 calories, 20 g fat (10 g saturated) and 45 g sugar. But it’s not all bad: You also get 5 g protein and 1.5 g fiberso it may satisfy you more than another candy that’s just straight sugar.
“If you’re choosing between candies that are pretty much all bad, it makes sense to consider the way you’re going to be eating it,” says Kriegler. “I would pick the snack you would have to take the longest time eating or chewing or sucking onanything to help you slow down the pace at which you’re inhaling it.”
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Worst Peanut-Butter Candy
Reese’s Pieces, 4-ounce box
Their slightly bigger box and colorful candy coating make Reese’s Pieces the loser in this category: One package contains 600 calories, 27 g fat (21 saturated), and 63 g sugar. And while the nutritional label lists zero trans fats, the ingredient list still contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oilswhich means that trans fats are present in quantities under half a gram per serving. With three servings per box, you could be chowing down on a significant amount of this artery-clogging ingredient.
“Serving sizes on food labels are determined by the manufacturer,” says Kriegler. “Decide how much you are actually going to eat, and then figure out what that means for you, nutritionally.”
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Best use of real fruit
Dryer’s 4-ounce Fruit Bar
Cinemark Cinemas offers several zero- or low-calorie items on its concessions menu, including a Dreyer’s fruit bar, made with real chunks of frozen fruit, for just 80 calories and 19 g sugar.
AMC offers a real-fruit option, as well, as part of their Smart MovieSnacks Bundle: For $7, you get a bag of Chiquita Fruit Chipsa crunchy mix of dehydrated bananas, pineapples, and mangos for 110 calories and 20 g sugaralong with bottled water, air-popped corn chips, and an Odwalla trail mix bar.
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Worst use of real fruit
Raisinets, 3.5-ounce box
If a fruit is covered in chocolate, is it still a fruit? Hardly, says Kriegler. Let’s look at the facts: A theater-size box of milk chocolate Raisinets contains 380 calories, 54 g sugar and 16 g fat; the dark chocolate variety’s only slightly better with 360 calories and 52 g sugar.
The candies may technically contain a half serving of fruit in every quarter cup (or one full serving per box), but you’re much better off eating an apple, or even a box of plain raisinswith zero fat, cholesterol, or added sugar. However, if you’re choosing between chocolate-covered candies, Raisinets are a better choice than some other options.
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Best chocolate-covered candy
Junior Mints, 4-ounce box
Junior Mints are lower in fat and calories than many other movie theater candies, but at 510 calories, 9 g fat (7.5 saturated) and 96 g sugar, that’s not saying much. (At 380 calories, Raisinets are a winner in this category.) If you do get Junior Mints, share them with friends and take your time savoring each piece.
“I once read a quote from food industry executives saying that designing junk food is more or less like designing a form of adult baby food: It tastes good, it’s addicting, and it takes no energy to consume,” Kriegler says. “At the movies, your mind is distracted and you have virtually no awareness about your eating pace, so you have to outsmart the system by eating something that takes the longest to consume.”
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Worst chocolate-covered candy
Milk Duds, 5-ounce box
Serving for serving, these chocolate-and-caramel favorites are nutritionally about the same as Junior Mints and other movie-theater candiesbut the fact that each box contains 3.5 servings pushes it over the top: If you’re not careful, you could consume the entire 595 calories, 21 g fat (12 g saturated) and 70 g sugar in one sitting.
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Best dinner entree
In any other world, a hot dog would not be considered a healthy dinner option: Cured meats are high in sodium and artery-blocking cholesterol, and they contain nitrates a chemical that’s been linked to cancer and other health problems. At the movie theater, however, it may be better than its alternatives.
Unlike giant boxes of candy or bottomless popcorn, hot dogs have built-in portion control; AMC Cinemas says its hot dog (with bun) contains 305 calories and 5 grams of fat, while Regal’s clocks in at 284 calories and 10 grams fat. Just don’t fall victim to the combo deals with popcorn and soda, or two-for-one offerings. One is more than enough!
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Worst dinner entree
According to AMC Cinemas, the brand’s personal pepperoni pizza contains 780 calories, 30 g of fat (16 g saturated) and a whopping 1,960 mg of sodium. To put that in perspective, the American Heart Association recommends a maximum of only 1,500 mg in an entire day. Consuming too much sodium on a regular basis can raise your risk for high blood pressure and heart disease.
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Best fruit chews
Starburst Original Gummibursts, 3-ounce box
Look for these liquid-filled gummies in your concession case: Each pack is only three ounces, with a total of 280 calories and 46 grams of sugar. That’s still not a healthy snack (and it should still be split with friends!), but it’s a smaller amount that many other candy packs twice that size.
Original Starburststhe individually wrapped onesmay come in a bigger package, with more calories and sugar in total. However, candy that you have to unwrap piece by piece may slow down your noshing, says Kriegler, and may make you think twice about what’s normally mindless eating while movie viewing.
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Worst fruit chews
Seinfeld’s Elaine may not have been able to resist them, but chewy, colorful Jujyfruits aren’t as healthy as their name may imply. There are about four servings in a theater-size pack; at 120 calories and 22 grams of sugar per serving, that’s almost 500 calories and 90 grams of sugar in each box!
These candies are fat free, howeverand if you can save yourself from eating the entire pack, one or two servings won’t completely blow your diet. The same goes for most other fruit-flavored candies, like Dots, Swedish Fish, and Welch’s Fruit Snacks. Opt for smaller size packages whenever possible, and split them with two or three friends.
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Best sour candy
Sour Patch Kids, 3.5-ounce box
This movie theater classic is actually one of the lowest-calorie candies you can choose, thanks to its relatively small box. (That’s not to say a jumbo-size box isn’t on its way to a theater near you.) Nutritionally, it’s similar to other sugary candies: 150 calories per 40 grams, totaling 395 calories and 65 g of sugar in each box.
There’s one more plus to these sour-then-sweet candies: Because of their strong flavor, you may find yourself sucking on them longer and eating fewer of them, says Kriegler.
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Worst sour candy
Lemonheads, 6-ounce box
There are 12 suggested servings in one of these jumbo boxes of chewy candies, “made with real lemon juice,” adding up to 600 calories total. They’re also made with sugarlots of it: Each box has 132 grams!