How to Find Healthy Movie Theater Food

Movie theater food is far from healthy, says one industry exec.

March 29, 2010

The real horror show: how unhealthy the food is.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Movie-industry executives are expending a lot of energy luring people back to movie theaters, with 3-D films, posh seats, and gourmet coffee bars. But, says one studio head, they aren't paying nearly enough attention to the trans fats and high calorie counts on movie theater menus.


At a recent trade show for movie theater owners, Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures Entertainment, told the theater owners that adding healthier menu items like yogurt, fruits, vegetables, and unbuttered, air-popped popcorn was "the right thing to do for your industry, for our audiences…and for America."

Movie theater food has never been the height of healthy eating. An average medium popcorn, covered in trans fat–laden "butter" (which is actually a mix of partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, butter, citric acid, beta-carotene, and milk) contains 1,170 calories and 90 grams of fat. Wash that down with a medium soda, and you're adding 385 more calories and 100 grams of sugar. But it's not just the popcorn and soda: Nachos contain 1,101 calories and 54 grams of fat, hotdogs pack 300 calories and 18 fat grams, and soft pretzels have 483 calories with 4 grams of mostly trans fats, along with a whopping 2,008 milligrams sodium, nearly all your recommended daily allotment. Grab a box of candy, and you're looking at anywhere from 400 to 1,200 calories, depending on which kind you get.

"Where do you look to find a healthy snack at a movie theater?" says Jane Hurley, RD, senior nutritionist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "They just don't exist." She adds that it's not just the food being served, either. It's the massive portions and the enticing combo deals that pile every unhealthy food behind the counter into one 2,000-calorie "snack." A moviegoer's perception of value plays something of a role, she says, because no one wants to pay $10 for a bucket of popcorn to get only a few cups, "but these value meals are one of the worst inventions for people's waistlines that the food industry ever come out with," she says. "The message should be that you can sit for two hours and enjoy the movie without moving your hand from a bucket of popcorn to your mouth."

If that doesn't seem doable, here are a few ways to look more like a svelte alien from "Avatar" than one of the futuristic blobby humans from "Wall-E":

#1: Sneak it in. Movie theater owners may not approve, but sneaking in your own healthy food is the best way to avoid calorie overload until movie theaters straighten up their acts. Rather than ordering a large soda, which is big enough to hold five 12-ounce cans, smuggle in a single can (of course, an empty water bottle may be easier, and healthier, to bring in). Stuff your pockets with healthier fare like bags of nuts, dried fruit, granola bars, or, if you must, a small bag of candy instead of the King Size boxes they sell at the counter.

#2: Make it dinner then a movie. It's a lot easier to order healthy food at a restaurant than it is at a movie theater. So if your evening plans include dinner and a movie, eat dinner first. It takes your brain 15 to 20 minutes after you eat to feel satiated, and you'll be less likely to order a huge tub of fatty, salty popcorn when you don't feel hungry.

#3: Order small. Nowadays, "small" sizes at movie theaters contain enough food to feed a small army, but even still, you're less likely to overeat with a smaller size. Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab have found that people eat 53 percent more popcorn from a large container than from a small one, because it's difficult to pay attention to both a movie and to what you're eating. And, as most of us know, we usually eat what's in front of us without paying attention to how much is actually there.

#4: Skip the previews. The longer you're in a dark movie theater, the longer you have to spend mindlessly eating whatever food you have. If you skip the previews (and the ads and all the other visual stimuli that flash across a screen before a movie), you could eliminate 20 minutes of eating.