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Body weight - How to avoid hidden calories

Our everyday diets contain many sources of calories that we may not take into account. Our everyday diets may contain sources of calories that we don’t take into account. And some 'energy dense' foods have very many calories in a small amount.

These ‘hidden calories’ all add up and can cancel out the positive steps that you may be making elsewhere in your diet.

This page contains information on some of the more common sources of hidden calories, and ways of avoiding them.

Fatty foods

It is easy to overeat on foods like butter or spreads, salad dressings, mayonnaise, cheese, pastries, chips, biscuits and crisps. This is because high fat foods contain a lot of energy, even in small portions.

So without actually eating large amounts of food, you could be eating more calories than you can burn every day. And because you’ve not eaten that much, you may still feel hungry.

Cakes and pastries are often high in fat and sugar. Eating lots of food high in saturated fat may also increase your risk of cancer.

  • Eating less high fat food and choosing reduced fat food where possible will help to reduce your calorie intake. This will also benefit your heart health.
  • Go for semi-skimmed or skimmed milk and choose reduced fat versions of dairy products like spreads, yogurts, cheese, fromage frais, and custard. Changing to semi-skimmed milk could save you 60 calories a day or 420 calories a week.
  • Use a minimum amount of oil when cooking. Spread margarine or butter thinly on your bread, even low fat versions. If possible stop using them entirely.
  • Try to cut down on food that has been cooked in lots of oil or batter. For example, try steamed fish instead of fried fish, bruschetta instead of garlic bread and steamed rice instead of egg fried rice.
  • Cut back on, or better still, cut out pastries, chips, pork pies, sausage rolls, cakes and puddings except for special treats.
  • Try to avoid sauces based on cream or coconut milk. For example, you could have tandoori instead of a korma, a stir-fry or steamed Thai dish instead of a green curry, or a marinara instead of a carbonara.
  • Look at the labels on food when you shop so that you can avoid or limit choices which are high in fat. For more information and a handy guide to food labels, go to our Look at the labels page.

For more information on healthier food choices, go to our Healthy Meal Ideas page or Weight Concern’s Healthier balance page.

Be careful of salads that are covered in creamy sauces - they can be very high in calories. Salads and vegetarian food

Many people see salads and vegetarian dishes as being automatically healthy. It is true that they are a good way of getting some fruit and vegetable portions into your meals. But pay attention to the ingredients and dressings - they can often be loaded with fat and sugar.

Try to avoid salads with high fat, creamy dressings, or ones that contain fatty ingredients like bacon, cheese or croutons. And cut down on vegetarian food that includes high fat ingredients like coconut milk, batter, and full fat dairy products like cheese or butter.

Fatty foods can contain lots of calories in small portions.Portion sizes

You may be eating too much food without realising it, especially since portion sizes have grown dramatically in recent years. To read more tips on keeping your portion sizes down, go to our Portion caution section.

‘Lower-fat’ foods

Be careful when reading claims on food packaging - they can be misleading. ‘Diet’, ‘light’ or ‘lower fat’ foods can have less fat than a similar product but they can still be high in calories, fat and sugar.

For example, low fat sausages, spreads and crisps are still high in fat compared to other foods. Reduced fat biscuits can still be high in sugar and calories even though the fat content has been reduced. And remember that foods claiming to be 80% fat-free still have a 20% fat content - that’s still quite high!

For more information on working out the fat content of foods, have a look at our Look at the labels section.

Soft drinks can be loaded with calories and sugar. Soft drinks

Drinks are not calorie-free. Many soft drinks (including fizzy and sweetened soft drinks) contain a lot of sugar. These drinks are said to have lots of ‘empty calories’ - they can contribute to weight gain but don’t have much nutritional value. You could aim to cut down on these types of drink.

You should drink 6-8 cups of non-alcoholic liquid each day, such as water or low-sugar squashes. Unsweetened fruit juice contains lots of vitamins and minerals, and can count towards your five daily portions of fruit and vegetables. But they are low in fibre and high in natural sugar, so they should only count for one of these portions on any one day.

Try to have coffee with semi-skimmed or skimmed milk, and avoid syrup or cream. Coffee

High street coffee shops are becoming more popular, and offer a wide choice of drinks. Large drinks with lots of cream, milk or sugar can be loaded with fat and calories. Try buying smaller sizes, and asking for ‘skinny’ drinks that use skimmed milk. Try to avoid cream, flavoured syrup or sugary toppings. Use skimmed or semi-skimmed milk if you’re making hot drinks at home too.

Alcoholic drinks can often contain lots of calories.Alcoholic drinks

Alcoholic drinks are very high in calories. So if you want to lose weight, you’ll need to consider reducing the amount you drink. Alcohol also increases your appetite - some people notice that they tend to eat more when they drink alcohol.

Choose dry versions of all alcoholic drinks - for example dry cider or dry white wine - as these are lower in calories than sweet versions. Opt for low-calorie mixers where you can.

Heavy drinking also increases your risk of many cancers, especially if you smoke as well. Our Alcohol section has more information on the links between alcohol and cancer.

Use the box below to guide you on how many calories there are in your drinks.

Drinks kcal
1 pint strong cider (8.5% ABV) 574
1 pint strong ale 409
1 pint draft beer (3.5%) 182
1 alcopop (275ml bottle) 180
1 glass (50ml) cream liqueur e.g. Baileys 165
1 alcoholic cocktail (e.g. a bloody Mary) 120
1/2 pint sweet cider 119
1 small glass (125ml) sweet white wine 118
1/2 pint dry cider (5%) 102
1 flute (125ml) of champagne (12.5%) 95
1/2 pint of lager 90
1 small glass (125ml) red wine 85
1 gin and tonic (25ml gin) 85
1 small glass (125ml) dry white wine (12%) 83
1 vodka and diet mixer (25ml vodka) 56

More tips

Our Ten Top Tips page has more advice on reaching a healthy body weight through healthy eating and physical activity. Ten Top Tips is a programme for weight loss through lifestyle changes that you can fit into your daily routine.

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Updated: 25 September 2009