Find the Hidden Calories

Making Sure Your Meal Plans Account for Everything
Are calories that you're not accounting for sneaking into your diet?

We know that portion sizes often leave us surprised by the total calories in our meals—but that’s not the only cause of inadvertent overeating. What many of us forget to account for when casually keeping track of our food intake is all the “hidden” calories throughout the day. They seem trivial at the time, but can add up to a lot more than what is in your technical three meals.

If you are calorie counting or keeping a food diary (and not leaving anything out), that’s already going to reveal the hidden calories to you. But for those of us who just try to take mental notes as we make our choices, here are some places where extra calories slip in and where we can cut them out relatively easily by being vigilant:

1. Condiments and Toppings

There are some condiments that add very little to the caloric content of food, like spices, but some add a substantial amount of calories, like butter and sugar on sweet potatoes or cream sauces on pasta. Even small amounts of condiments add up surprisingly quickly, and we often are more careful to measure the core food of a meal than we are vigilant about the teaspoons and tablespoons of toppings. A pizza, for instance, can radically change in caloric content based on just how generously you add the cheese on top. This doesn’t mean eliminating condiments and toppings, just noticing and factoring in the servings you get of them.

2. Drinks

I personally was stunned by how many calories I cut when I started drinking black coffee instead of creamy, sweetened coffee. I could eat substantially more food for breakfast when I swapped those calories out. The same is true for so many other drinks – sodas and juices, wine and beer, and many other drinks all have caloric content that belies how easily we guzzle them down. Drinking calorie-laden drinks when thirsty allows us to “sate” a need that really is for water but makes us quickly take in a lot of hidden calories. I have become much more vigilant about keeping a glass of water handy at all times, because I know that if that’s the closest thing, I’ll use it to quench my thirst. That leaves me free of calories for my thirst, so I only drink moderate amounts of all calorie-filled drinks.

3. Dessert…

This is a tough one! When I budget an approximate amount of calories for a meal that’s catered at work, I can be filling my plate just fine to hit my target and then… the cheesecake table appears. Rarely do I have the willpower to resist dessert, so I know that I need to keep two things in mind: often a small sweet treat is quite satisfying, and I try to keep my total meal caloric count low enough to accommodate said small serving of dessert. That way, I’m not eating more than I planned just because dessert is so… grand!

4. Mindless Snacking

Especially for those of us with desk jobs, it’s easy to snack on things throughout the afternoon in such small quantities that it doesn’t really feel like it makes any caloric impact—but it does. If you’re snacking on calorie-dense foods like candy, chips, or nuts, it just takes a few handfuls for you to consume over 200 calories. I keep a bag of dried apricots in my desk, and try to bring green bell pepper or celery sticks to crunch on throughout the day. They have calories, but their low calorie-to-volume ratio and their nutrients make me happy to snack on them; other snacks can quickly become full meals just based on the calories they contain! When I do buy things like granola bars, I try to aim for smaller portion sizes but higher protein content, hoping that I will be happy with one of them and that the protein will help me when I get to the gym next time!

Make it WayBetter

Think about your daily eating honestly and evaluate where you want those hidden calories to go – you don’t have to cut them all out, just not let them stay hidden! See if there’s a way to make water and low-calorie foods easy to get to between meals, and higher-calorie options less accessible.