5 Common Sources of Hidden Calories

5 Common Sources of Hidden Calories

(Last Updated On: March 30, 2019)

5 Common Sources of Hidden Calories

The worst calories are the “hidden” ones you don’t know about, the ones you blissfully eat and drink without adding them to your balance sheet. These hidden calories accumulate quickly and can lead to unexpected weight gain. Hidden calories leave you scratching your head in bewilderment, wondering why you put on weight. Here are five of the most common sources of hidden calories and how to avoid them.

 Food You Don’t Prepare Yourself

When you make your meals at home, you can track what’s going into your food. One common way people get stung with hidden calories is when they eat in restaurants. Restaurants aren’t always transparent about what goes into their offerings. Fortunately, more chain restaurants offer calorie and nutritional information online now. A little research beforehand can save you from ordering a high-calorie item. You can also see whether there are hidden unhealthy surprises like trans-fat in a restaurant’s menu items. It’s hard to make a smart decision when you’re hungry and seduced by the sight and smell of food. Know what you’re going to order ahead of time.

Even if you check a restaurant’s calorie and nutritional information beforehand, you can’t always trust it. A study carried out by Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston found calorie information on many fast food and sit-down restaurant menus is inaccurate. Discrepancies were largest for sit-down restaurants. Some had calorie counts were off by as much as 250 calories.  That’s a BIG source of hidden calories!

The other way people get stuck with hidden calories is believing something is healthy “because” – because it’s low-fat (which usually means high in sugar), because it’s organic (says nothing about the calorie content) or because it’s vegetarian (vegetarian foods can be high in sugar, fat, and calories too).

How restaurants describe their offerings can also lead you astray. When they use “healthy” terms in their description like “light” or “fresh,” it creates a picture of something good for you and low in calories. Stick with objective information like calorie counts and use your common sense when you suspect the calorie information is off.  All in all, you’ll avoid a major source of hidden calories by not eating out as often.


Salads have a “health halo” surrounding them. People think when they’re eating one they’re eating something healthy and not consuming a lot of calories. Read some of the calorie counts on entrée salads at sit-down and fast food restaurants and it’ll quickly dispel this myth. How about a chicken Caesar flatbread salad with 1,000 calories? This calorie-bloated salad really exists.

When you make a salad at a salad bar it can still deliver a boatload of hidden calories. A quarter-cup of cheese has over 100 calories and a half-cup of croutons does too. Even almonds with all of their healthy fats have around 110 calories in an eighth of a cup. Where most people get into trouble is with the dressing they put on their salad creation. Amazingly, some restaurant salad dressings like ranch and blue cheese have up to 300 calories per serving.

Make your salads at home and top them off with a homemade dressing. For a fast balsamic vinaigrette dressing, mix 3 parts extra-virgin olive oil with 1 part Balsamic vinegar. So quick and easy! Add your choice of spices for added flavor. Build your salad with a nutrient-rich and low-calorie base of dark greens like watercress, baby spinach or arugula. These choices pack lots of nutritional punch!

Choose many colorful vegetables for the second layer – red cabbage, carrots, red peppers, broccoli, etc. Veggies should be the bulk of your salad. Add a source of protein – roasted turkey breast, wild salmon, egg whites, tofu chunks – to make it a meal. Seeds, nuts, and cheese add extra crunch and flavor but stick to no more than a tablespoon of nuts or seeds or two tablespoons of shredded cheese.

Hidden Calories in Beverages

People often forget about the calories they sip. Liquid calories count. When a can of soft drink has up to 150 calories and lots of sugar or high fructose corn syrup, it’s time to purge them from your diet. Fruit juice, even without added sugar, is usually still high in calories and natural sugars. Coffee drinks, especially the frou-frou ones topped off with whipped cream, are another source of hidden calories. Some Frappuccinos have more calories than 3 candy bars. If you want something more dessert like than regular coffee, order a regular-sized cappuccino with skim milk.

Nuts and Other Healthy Snacks

Nuts are a healthy snack option but even the lowest calorie nut, the pistachio, is still calorie dense. Resist the urge to snack out of the can or jar – even if you have self-control. It’s hard to stop once you get started! Nuts and seeds are a good snack alternative – when you practice portion control. Here’s some good news for nut lovers. Some studies show not all the fat is absorbed from the nuts you eat. Free calories! Nuts are also high on the satiety scale. The thing to remember is portion control.

 Sauces and Condiments

What you put on your food and how you prepare it can be a source of hidden calories. Creamy sauces and thick mayo and butter-based condiments and sauces add considerable calories to an otherwise healthy meal. Other condiments like barbeque sauce, cocktail sauce and ketchup are often high in sugar or high-fructose corn syrup. Stick with options lower in calories and sugar such as unsweetened mustard, hot sauce, and salsa. Wasabi sauce is another low-calorie option that will quickly fill you up with to its powerful flavor. Garlic, herbs, and spices are almost calorie-free, contain antioxidants and offer lots of flavors. Use them to “wake up” your food without hidden calories.

 The Bottom Line?

Hidden calories add up. Be mindful of where you eat, what you eat and drink and the kinds of condiments you put on your food. As they say, small things really DO make a difference when it comes to controlling your weight.



The Doctor Will See You Now. “Restaurant Calorie Counts Misleading to Dieters”

Mattes, RD. The Energetics of Nut Consumption. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr (2008) 17 (S1): 337-339.

Food and Drug Administration. “Calories Consumed From Alcoholic Beverages by U.S. Adults, 2007-2010”


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Nutrition Bars: Are They Really Nutritious?

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Negative Calorie Foods: is There Such a Thing?

Add This to Your Next Meal & You Might Make Healthier Food Choices


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