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Sunday, April 8, 2012

Better health could be playing at theater near you

Who knew movie night could offer so many health benefits?

Whether you buy a ticket or rent to watch on the couch, just make sure the screen fare is of the three-hankie genre and that the snack fare includes popcorn and chocolate.

That very combo, according to a trio of new scientific reports, should enhance emotional well-being, boost antioxidant levels and help reduce weight.

First, the tearjerker.

Researchers at Ohio State University report online in the journal Communication Research that many people enjoy watching films such as “Titanic” or “Atonement” because they’re prompted to think about their own close relationships, which makes them happy.

The study, led by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick, an associate professor of communications, was based on responses from 361 college students who had viewed a shortened version of the 2007 film “Atonement,” which involves two ill-fated lovers separated by war.

Those who felt they had experienced a greater increase in sadness while viewing the movie were more likely to write about real people with whom they had close relationships, Knobloch-Westerwick said, which in turn increased their happiness.

By contrast, students whose thoughts were more self-centered, and who compared their own lives to those of the film characters, rather than thinking about their loved ones, didn’t experience increased happiness.

Diving on into the popcorn bucket, scientists at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania reported that the popped kernels contain higher levels of antioxidant substances called polyphenols than fruits and veggies.

Specifically, an ounce of popcorn contains up to 300 milligrams of polyphenols, versus 160 mg in an ounce of most fruit and 114 mg for a serving of sweet corn. Of course, 90 percent of the antioxidants are found in the hulls of popcorn, which many people avoid and which may not be fully digested.

Joe Vinson, a professor of chemistry and lead researcher on the project, which was partly funded by a popcorn company, told the American Chemical Society’s national meeting on March 25 that how the corn is popped still makes all the difference in whether it’s really a healthy snack.

Air popping is best. Cooking it the way most movie theaters do – in oil, plus butter or butter substitute and salt – gives it more than twice the calories and loads of fat and sodium, although the antioxidant properties remain.

Then there’s the chocolate. Just because you’re sad from the movie, don’t binge on the candy – nibble a bit and keep eating some chocolate almost every day.

If you do, researchers at the University of California, San Diego reported March 26, you just may wind up thinner than those who don’t consume chocolate as regularly.

They based this conclusion, reported online in the Archives of Internal Medicine, from analyzing dietary and other weight and health measures provided by about 1,000 adult men and women in the San Diego area. Average chocolate intake for everyone in the study was twice a week.

Those who ate chocolate on more days a week were actually thinner – with a lower body mass index – than those who ate chocolate less often. This was true even though Godiva regulars took in more calories and exercised no more than the rest.

Dr. Beatrice Golomb, who led the research and admits to a regular chocolate habit, said the study suggests the composition of calories may matter more than just total numbers, with the antioxidants and other properties of chocolate perhaps leading to reduced fat deposition in the body per calorie consumed.

Lee Bowman is health and science reporter for Scripps Howard News Service. He can be reached at bowmanl@shns.com.