Hidden Calorie Countdown

Last Editorial Review: 1/31/2005

Avoid sneaky calories that could wreck your diet

By Jennifer Warner
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD

Could your morning bagel or afternoon pick-me-up be sabotaging your diet? Hidden calories in many of today's most popular foods can derail even the most dedicated dieter or health-conscious eater.

You may know about the 580-calorie Big Mac, but how about the 700-calorie cup of coffee and 590-calorie muffin? Or the 660-calorie salad with 51 grams of artery-clogging fat?

Those are just some examples of the worst offenders. But by learning the calorie count of some common grab-and-go foods and adopting some simple preparation and ordering strategies, experts say you can banish many of the biggest diet busters.

Breakfast: When a Doughnut Might Be Better Than a Bagel

Having just a bagel or muffin at breakfast may sound innocent enough, but dietitians say the size of those breakfast staples has basically tripled in recent years in many cases.

Muffins that were once the size of tennis balls now more closely resemble softballs, and bagels have grown from about four inches in diameter to more than six. Of course, that means the calorie counts have also risen exponentially. For example:

  • Muffins. With 590 calories and 24 grams of fat, a Dunkin' Donuts Chocolate Chip muffin makes a 200-to-300 calorie doughnut look relatively healthy. Even the reduced-fat blueberry muffin packs 450 calories.
  • Bagels. A traditionally sized bagel, like Lender's Original frozen bagels, has about 200-300 calories, but a fresh bagel from Starbucks or Dunkin Donut's now has more than 400 calories.

"People will say a bagel is a bagel, but you really have to focus on the size of that bagel and muffin. And you may just have to say that half of that big bagel is adequate," says Melanie Polk, MMSc, RD, director of nutrition education at the American Institute for Cancer Research.

Lunch: Choose Your Salad Wisely

Although fast food chains are now offering expanded salad choices at lunchtime, grabbing a salad at lunch isn't always a healthy choice.

"Just because it's called a salad doesn't mean it's low in calories," says Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. He says lettuce is low-cal and healthy, but it's what goes on top, such as fatty dressings, bacon bits, croutons, and crispy noodles, that can pile up the calorie count and fat quickly.

Take McDonald's Bacon Ranch Salad, for example. Choosing "crispy" (i.e. fried) chicken over grilled adds an extra 8 grams of fat and 100 calories (70 of them from fat). Top it with a packet of the Newman's Own Ranch Dressing that's offered with the salad and you've suddenly got a lunch calorie count of 660 and 51 grams of fat. At that rate, you'd be better off with a Big Mac, which weighs in at 580 calories and 33 grams of fat.

But Ayoob says there are ways to slim down the salad offerings at fast food restaurants and salad bars:

  • Have the salad done "your way." Most people wouldn't think of ordering a burger with toppings they don't want, and the same goes for salads. "Just because it comes with a host of options doesn't mean you have to take all of them," says Ayoob.
  • Explore different salad toppings. Try a new vegetable, such as hearts of palm, or options that add extra protein without a lot of fat, such as tuna, chickpeas, kidney beans, or a hard-boiled egg.
  • Use cheeses sparingly. Sprinkle on a small amount of grated cheese for added flavor and volume without as much fat or calories as using cheese chunks or cubes.
  • Adopt the "stab-and-grab" method. Order salad dressing on the side and use the "stab and grab" method of dipping your fork into the dressing before grabbing each bite. You'll end up using less dressing and still get flavor in every mouthful.

Snacks: Mega-Calorie Coffee and Triple-Sized Chips

Stopping at the vending machine or Starbucks for a mid-afternoon pick-me-up could end up costing you more calories than lunch if you're not careful.

A venti (that's large in non-barista speak) Mocha Coconut Frappuccino with whipped cream gives you much more than a java jolt with 710 calories and 26 grams of fat. If you're in the mood for something hot and sweet, a large cafe mocha with whipped cream at Starbucks will cost you 490 calories and the same 26 grams of fat.

But experts say it is possible to get your caffeine fix without breaking the calorie bank by following this advice when ordering:

  • Ask for your beverage to be made "skinny." (That's with nonfat or skim milk.)
  • Skip the whipped cream on top.
  • Order the smallest size.

By applying those rules, you can slim down that cafe mocha to 170 calories and 1.5 grams of fat and get still 30% of the recommended daily amount of calcium and 11 grams of protein at the same time.

Or you can make your own iced coffee beverage by combining coffee, ice, skim milk, cocoa powder or cinnamon, and a packet or two of sugar-free sweetener.

At the vending machine, Polk warns that a bag of chips might contain more than you bargained for. Snack-sized bags that once contained only a single serving of potato chips are now up to two to three times bigger.

"Snacks have gotten bigger than ever," says Polk. "You really have to read that nutrition label and look at how many servings are included and look at the number of calories. For most people, once they have that bag open, they're going to eat the whole thing."

Dinner: Time for Portion Patrol

When it comes to eating a healthy dinner at a restaurant or at home, a little portion control can go a long way, says nutritionist Christina Stark, MS, RD, of Cornell University.

Stark says portions served at most restaurants are up to two and three time larger than the standard serving size, which is the amount of food that serves as the basis for standard nutritional information and calorie counts.

"A commonsense idea is that no matter how many calories are in a serving or a portion, half the serving is half calories," says Stark. So she says sharing main-course entrees at restaurants is always a good idea.

Other tips for avoiding hidden calories when eating out at dinner include:

  • Take note of the portion sizes people are eating as you walk into a restaurant. If they look big, order accordingly. For example, order a salad and split an entree with your dining partner.
  • Ask for a half portion when ordering, or have the server bring a doggie bag at the start of the meal, divide your portion in half, and take the rest home for the next day.
  • Beware of descriptions such as "crispy" or "crunchy" on a menu. That usually means the item was fried in fat. Other hidden-calorie code words that indicate fatty items include "creamy," "sauteed," or "braised in its own juices."

At home, Stark says a practical experiment is to try measuring out a serving size of some of the foods you eat on a regular basis, such as chicken, cereal, peanut butter, cheese, etc., at home to see what a single serving size really looks like. To find out what a standard serving size of a food is, read the nutrition facts label or check the USDA Web site, www.usda.gov/cnpp/Pubs/Brochures/HowMuchAreYouEating.pdf.

"Most people pick out the same bowl every morning and put in same amount of cereal without thinking," says Stark. "But before eating it, try pouring it into a measuring cup and see how it compares to the serving size printed on the side of the box."

Then she says, you can decide for yourself whether you need to adjust your portions.

Liquid Calories: Don't Belly Up to the Bar

Ayoob says liquid calories from spending too much time at the bar or lingering over a bottle of wine can also catch many dieters off guard.

The average calorie count of a glass of wine or bottle of beer is about 100-150 calories. Considering the average wine bottle contains about four glasses of wine, splitting a bottle at dinner easily adds 300 calories.

Aside from lowering your inhibitions and making you more likely to overeat, Ayoob says liquid calories are especially dangerous to diets for other reasons as well.

"There is evidence that when people take in liquid calories they don't tend to compensate by eating less of other things the way they do when they eat solid foods," Ayoob tells WebMD.

That means most folks have their drink and their dessert, too. To avoid that pitfall, Ayoob recommends:

  • Order wine by the glass rather than by the bottle.
  • Alternate alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic ones, like club soda or water.
  • Dilute your drink with club soda, such as a wine spritzer, to give yourself more volume with less alcohol.

By following this advice, experts say health-conscious eaters and dieters can avoid having hidden calories sneak up on them or their waistlines.

Published September 15, 2003.

SOURCES: Keith Ayoob, EdD, RD, spokesman, American Dietetic Association. Melanie Polk, MMSc, RD, director of nutrition education, American Institute for Cancer Research. Christina Stark, MS, RD, nutritionist, division of nutritional sciences, Cornell University. Center for Science in the Public Interest. American Cancer Society. Starbucks. McDonald's. Dunkin' Donuts.

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