Best and worst movie foods – Best popcorn: 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 grams of saturated fat. AMC, the No. 2 chain, serves a smaller option: 370 calories, but still a day's worth of saturated fat (20 grams).
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 grams fat and only 1 gram saturated fat.
Best and worst movie foods – Worst popcorn: Large with butter flavoring
Tests done in 2009 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found nutritional numbers to be higher than advertised for most products it tested, including a large popcorn at Regal (1,200 calories and 60 grams of saturated fat, according to tests); AMC (1,030 calories and 57 grams saturated fat, not counting the free refill!); and Cinemark (910 calories and 4 grams 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 milligrams, or an entire day's worth for most people.
Best savory snack: Soft pretzel, no cheese – Best savory snack: Soft pretzel, no cheese
Regal Cinema's Bavarian pretzel contains 480 calories -- less 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 calories -- without 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.
Best chocolate candy: Sno-Caps – 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 grams of fat (5 grams saturated), and 24 grams 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 adds -- just don't let it turn into an excuse to pig out even further.
Worst chocolate candy: M&Ms – 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.
Best peanut-butter candy: Butterfinger Minis – 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 grams of fat (10 grams saturated) and 45 grams sugar. But it's not all bad: You also get 5 grams of protein and 1.5 grams of fiber -- so 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 on -- anything to help you slow down the pace at which you're inhaling it."
Worst peanut-butter candy: Reese's Pieces – 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 grams of fat (21 saturated), and 63 grams sugar.
And while the nutritional label lists zero trans fats, the ingredient list still contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oils -- which 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."
Worst use of real fruit: Raisinets – 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 grams of sugar and 16 grams fat; the dark chocolate variety's only slightly better with 360 calories and 52 grams of 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 raisins -- with zero fat, cholesterol, or added sugar.
However, if you're choosing between chocolate-covered candies, Raisinets are a better choice than some other options.
Best sour candy: Sour Patch Kids – 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 grams 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.
Best dinner entree: Hot dog – Best dinner entree: Hot dog
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!