Hidden Calories: They Can Add Up Fast

Hidden calories: They can add up fast

Think of them as “stealth” calories. Like the military plane that’s able to avoid radar, extra calories can sneak into your diet despite your best efforts to make good choices.

Hidden calories can masquerade in food that seems healthful but is filled with fat. Or, they might be in a food you didn’t know packed a high caloric punch. And if you are trying to lose weight, then you may be shocked to hear that even foods we consider healthy can be high in calories, leading to weight gain.

No matter where extra calories come from, they add up fast. But knowing what foods contain hidden calories can help you stay on track in maintaining a healthful diet.

Tracking hidden calories

Foods that may give more calories than you bargained for include:

  • Reduced-fat foods — Just because some of the fat is gone doesn’t mean the calories are. If you check the label, you’ll often find that the reduced-fat snack you’re eating still has a significant number of calories — sometimes almost as much as “regular” snacks.

Tip: Pay attention to the label, especially the serving size and total calorie content, and you won’t wind up with more calories than you intended.

  • Condiments — A tablespoon of mayonnaise adds 100 calories to your sandwich with one spread of your knife. One tablespoon of salad dressing is another quick way to put up to 100 calories in your salad. And just 1 tablespoon of butter tops your baked potato with another 100 calories.

Think of the other things you typically add to your food without much thought. Do you like jelly on your toast? One tablespoon — even of the all-fruit spreads — has about 50 calories. Do you add cream and sugar to coffee? You could be adding up to 65 calories to your morning java. Honey, often added to tea, has 65 calories per tablespoon.

Tip: To add spice to food without adding as many calories, try ketchup, salsa or one of the many new gourmet mustards. For coffee or tea, use skim milk or a sugar substitute (in moderation) instead. Many flavored coffees or teas are also low in calories, and they don’t need cream or sugar.

  • Alcohol — Cocktail calories add up fast. A 2.5-ounce martini has about 155 calories, while a 2-ounce Manhattan has 130 calories. Other alcoholic drinks are also high in calories. There are 150 calories in a 12-ounce beer, and a 4-ounce glass of white or red wine has about 80 to 85 calories. Even wine coolers tip the scale at over 200 calories for a 12-ounce serving.

Tip: Try light beer (100 calories) or nonalcoholic beer (60 calories). Or, make your own wine spritzer by adding club soda to half a glass of wine.

  • Soda pop — Because of the sugar in it, regular soda has about 150 to 200 calories per 12-ounce can. If you drink three cans a day, which is the amount contained in many of the large refillable cups sold by stores and restaurants, you’ve used up a good share of your recommended daily intake of calories.

Tip: Try making water your main beverage. But if you still want something fizzy, try club soda or mineral water. Add a lemon or lime wedge for flavor with negligible calories.

  • Nuts — Although they’re a good source of protein and vitamin E, just a small handful of nuts can easily contain 100 to 200 calories. For example, there’s about 160 calories and 14 grams of fat in those packages of peanuts handed out on airplanes. And just 1 ounce of sunflower seeds sprinkled on your salad adds 170 calories and about 15 grams of fat.

Tip: Snack alternatives to nuts include air-popped popcorn (25 calories a cup) or pretzels (25 small ones have 110 calories). For crunch on top of salads, try cut-up celery, water chestnuts, radishes or carrots.

  • Olive Oil — Olive oil is a “healthy fat” but it packs a high calorie punch. One level tablespoon has 119 calories, (making it calorically-dense) and those calories can easily add up if you are using olive oil as a salad dressing or to dip your bread in.

Tip: Go easy on the oil and measure it out or use a reduced-fat salad dressing and measure it so you know how much you are getting.

  • Yogurt — Many types of yogurt, including frozen yogurt, may be low in fat but high in sugar and calories. Check the label or ask at the counter to see how many calories you’re getting.

Tip: Look for fat-free yogurts. But be careful — even they may have about 100 calories per serving. And keep the serving size reasonable — have frozen yogurt in a small sugar cone (which has 45 calories) rather than a waffle cone that is 200 calories. Or skip the cone altogether and have the same amount in a dish.

  • Muffins — They seem like a healthful food and they’re often sold in so-called health food stores. But one large muffin can have between 300 and 500 calories, not to mention a good number of fat grams. Even a regular-size muffin can have 120 to 200 calories.

Tip: Choose a bagel, English muffin or slice of hearty, whole-grain bread instead.

  • Fruit juice — Think of how many oranges you have to squeeze for a glass of juice. Now you know why an 8-ounce serving of orange juice can have 100 to 120 calories, even though an orange has only about 60 calories. Other fruit juices — pineapple and grape in particular — may also be high in calories.

Tip: Keep your juice serving size to 6 ounces. Or, eat a piece of the fruit itself instead.

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Build a Healthy Meal Template

Build your meals around nutrient-rich foods to make Mediterranean style meals focusing on:

Mostly plant foods, lean protein such as seafood or occasionally lean poultry, beans, whole grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, mono fat.

Why? 1. Vegetables, fruits, seafood, lean poultry and whole grains have a low caloric densityCalorie density, also known as calories per pound, is how much energy, i.e. calories, is provided per unit measure of food. Choosing foods with a low calorie density can help with weight loss. 2. These foods are nutrient dense.

Helpful Resource 

This is my favorite book containing a collection of quick to make grain bowls, stews and risottos, that will help you create meals using my build a meal template. The author showcases recipes for vegetarian and vegan meals as well as heartier ones with meat and seafood.

Vegetables    ½ your plate

Salad greens or vegetable salads

Roasted asparagus, cauliflower, broccoli, red pepper strips, mushrooms, etc.

Sautéed or stir fried mixed vegetables, kale, sugar snap peas

Raw vegetables

Broth based vegetable soup

Lean Protein     ¼ of your plate

Shrimp, Salmon, Crab, Fish, Chicken or Turkey Breast, Egg Whites, Tofu and some tofu products, quinoa, Reduced Fat Cottage Cheese, Low Fat Greek Yogurt, Skim Milk

Healthy Carbs    ¼ of your plate

Sweet potato or potato

Beans, peas, lentils, corn or green beans


Whole grain products: cereal, bread, tortillas, English muffins, pasta, crackers

Whole grains such as:

Products Spotlight:    *Seeds of Change Quinoa and Brown Rice, precooked and microwavable   *Barilla Whole Grain Pasta    *Trader Joe’s Whole Grain Crispbread      *Trader Joe’s Brown Rice Medley

Healthy Fat  Small Amounts 

Olive oil, olives, olive tapenade, canola oil

Avocado cream (see my blog)

Pesto, Costco’s Kirkland


Walnuts or almonds or other nuts

Seeds such as pumpkin, sesame, chia, hemp, flax, sunflower

Light salad dressing

Flavor Boosters  Small amounts of the ones that are calorically dense

Rubs (Spike, El Gaucho, Salish Lodge, Rub with Love), Herbs and Spices, Ceylon Cinnamon, see here more Ceylon Cinnamon info, Turmeric, Salsa, Lemon, Reduced Sodium Soy Sauce, Barbecue Sauce, Sirracha, Chipotles in Adobo, Chili Sauce, mustard, Brummel and Brown Spread, vinegars, Miso, avocado cream, Reduced fat sharp cheddar, feta, goat cheese, reduced fat sour cream, dried fruits, Stevia and erythritol. 

Foods to avoid: saturated fat, food colors, red meat, processed meat, deep fried foods, junky gluten-free products, agave (higher in fructose than other sugars), fast food, highly processed food, added sugar, refined grains like white flour, industrial vegetable oils, trans fats, fruit juice, alcohol, barbecued foods, high heat cooked food.

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How To Minimize Holiday Weight Gain

Photo credit Jennifer Pallian

The holiday season poses significant challenges to weight control and eating regulation for all of us and for those who are overweight, a higher degree of effort is required to manage their weight in the long term.

Several studies have found that those who gained weight over the holidays were far less likely to ever lose the weight. So paying attention to exercise and eating behaviors will pay off.
However, you can do what those who have a history of successful weight loss do to maintain or even lose weight during the holiday season. (defined by: lost a mean of 76 pounds and had kept ≥29 pounds off for a mean of 5.9 years)
Compared to Unsuccessful Losers, Successful losers:
  • Make specific preholiday plans to control their eating and
  • Maintain greater exercise,
  • Pay greater attention to weight and eating,
  • Have greater stimulus control,
  • Keep a food journal,
  • Practice greater dietary restraint during the holidays,
  • Eat a healthy breakfast,
  • Weigh themselves weekly.
In general, successful losers give greater overall attention to weight, exercise and eating during the holiday season.

5 Tips to Avoid Gaining Those Extra Holiday Pounds!

Many will fall into the trap of gaining holiday pounds over the next several weeks, only to be faced with a belly of blubber that must be worked off in January. With a little thought and planning, YOU can avoid that cycle and start January ahead of the pack! Here are 5 tips to stay on track this holiday season.

  1. Understand that a holiday is just 1 day.
    Too often I hear people practicing negative self-talk. “I just can’t lose weight around the holidays”, “I know I will gain 10 pounds between all the holidays- it happens to me every year,” or “I’ll just wait until January and then get back on track with my nutrition and exercise.” That’s inaccurate thinking. A holiday is just one day. You CAN enjoy a meal with the family and still stay on track with your goals- just take it one day at a time. Remind yourself that it’s only 1 day. Don’t allow your holi-“day” turn into a holi-“week”!
  2. Spend part of the day outside instead of on the couch!
    While watching Thanksgiving football has become an American Tradition- try to get outside for part of the day as well. Go to watch a local game, throw the football around in the park or backyard with the kids. Have fun- just get your butt unglued from the couch at some point during the day.
  3. Limit alcohol consumption
    Think of beer and wine as liquid fat. Alcohol has dramatic affects on the body’s metabolism and energy usage. If you’re a social drinker, try to limit yourself to 1 or 2 drinks- and make them last. Avoid high calories mixed drinks that are full of sugar. Even better- skip the alcohol and order a tonic water or diet soda.
  4. Opt for mashed potatoes instead of candied sweet potatoes. . A cup of mashed potatoes has about 240 to 300 calories, depending on how much butter (each tablespoon is 100 calories) and what type of milk or cream you use. Candied sweet potatoes, however, also contain butter — as well as brown sugar and sometimes even marmalade, honey, maple syrup, marshmallows and/or pecans, which can add up to more than 450 calories for a one-cup portion.
  5. Choose one desert, not three
    Pumpkin Pie, Christmas cookies, Chocolate- the holidays are full of traditions with sweets. Enjoy them! But pick 1; don’t feel like you have to eat everything on the table. Give yourself permission to enjoy all the holidays have to offer, and then grab the platter of veggies!

Remember YOU have the power to lose or gain weight this holiday season. By incorporating these 5 tips you’ll come out of this holiday season better than ever and ahead of the pack in January!

Maria Faires, RD is a Registered Dietitian, a Certified Personal Trainer with the American Council on Exercise and President of Active Nutrition.  For more information on getting in shape for the holidays and getting RESULTS with this year’s resolutions contact Maria at My Active Nutrition Fitness & Nutrition Consulting.


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