Popcorn is in the news. So is popcorn the new "ultimate diet food" ?
Well, first of all we must recognize that obesity is an epidemic in the 21st century, and diet has assumed the dimensions of a national obsession. A Google search on the word "diet" returns 595 million possible results. Every day (probably several times a day) a new diet book is published and fad diets come and go with the seasons. So what should a person do? Buying lots of popcorn or drifting from fad to fad is clearly not the answer.
During the 1920s, a diet heavily composed of corn resulted in an epidemic of pellagra in the southern United States. The signs and symptoms include dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and death. This resulted not from eating the corn itself, but from the absence of dietary niacin that occurred when people ate corn (which was cheap and high in caloric value) and little else. Niacin (nicotinic acid) is a B vitamin that's used by your body to turn carbohydrates into energy. The result was over 100,000 cases of pellagra and thousands of deaths.
The question, then, is what can we eat to maintain good nutrition while avoiding over-nutrition and obesity.
The common sense answer is a balanced diet. An appropriate combination of protein, carbohydrates, fats, sugars, vitamins, and other nutrients in a diet composed of fruits, vegetables, and complete protein sources (meat, eggs, cheese, fish, beans) is necessary to maintain good health.
Now the question becomes how to get the necessary nutrients by eating a variety of foods without becoming overweight.
The answer is portion control. Calories in must equal calories out. A portion of meat, fish, or other main course protein should be 4 ounces (113.5 grams). This is 454 calories. A 16-ounce steak is 1816 calories, or very nearly the entire caloric requirement of the average active 120-pound woman and 82 percent of the daily caloric requirement of the standard 70kg (154-pound) man. Use a calorie calculator to establish your own daily calorie requirement (limit).
In order to lose weight, you must consume fewer calories than this on a regular basis. To maintain your weight, you must consume no more. Protein, carbohydrates and sugars contain 4 calories per gram (cal/gm), fats contain 9 cal/gm and alcohol 7 cal/gm. Get a postal (metric) scale to help establish portion size. Exercise may help (walking / running burns about 90 calories a mile), but unless you are a lumberjack or a tri-athelete, push-aways (from the table) will be your most effective exercise.
Learn to eat right every day. Do not succumb to fad diets or think that you can lose the weight and then go off your "diet." Your diet is what you eat every day, day in day out, for a lifetime. Eat and exercise in moderation. This advice is not sexy, popular, or easy. It is simply the truth.
So have some popcorn, but no more than 4 ounces, and hold the salt and butter.
Mark L. Friedman MD FACEP FACP is an emergency physician working to revolutionize the delivery of health care.