These Common Foods are Secretly Ruining Your Calorie Intake

Some of your staples may act as a double agent.

Brad is a university lecturer with a master’s degree in kinesiology and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He has competed as a drug-free bodybuilder, cancer survivor, and 21-year veteran in the Air National Guard.. Brad has been a contributor to Primer since 2011.

Are there foods that are secretly ruining your diet? Foods that are seen and accepted as healthy but actually sabotage your best efforts?

We tend to pride ourselves on knowing good and bad foods. Normally, if we see a label with the terms “healthy,” “light,” “more protein,” or “gluten-free,” we feel reassured that we’re on the right track in terms of getting fitter, healthier, and feeling better.

Whether it’s a new year, a goal for an event, or a personal commitment, we all want to see and experience real and significant results from our best efforts, and eating better often tops the list.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at some foods that may secretly destroy your calorie intake. But first, let’s break down some important points like calories, how do we use calories, and whether there are really any bad foods out there?

What are calories?

Simply put, a calorie is a unit of energy. It is defined in the human body as a unit of heat generated to raise the temperature of 1 kilogram of water from 0 to 1 degree Celsius. This is where the term “calorie burner” comes from.

Practically speaking, we raise the temperature inside our bodies, usually through exercise and other means, and release heat from energy expenditure.

Food is our main source of energy. We take calories, burn them, and then replace them. What we experience is when we handle too much or burn too little or both.

How do we burn calories?

Exercise isn’t the only way to burn some calories. There are other methods that require a lot of energy – more than intense exercise.

There are four main pathways that require calories throughout our day. Let’s quickly break these down to get a better perspective:

So, it goes without saying that a lot of the calories you expend come from just being. This is why our eating habits are so important and why we should pay close attention to our food choices.

Are there really any bad foods?

Yes and no. There are a lot of foods that can be considered “bad” due to lack of nutrients, processed formulas, preservatives, and additives that can have adverse effects on our health. Hydrogenated oils, for example, are man-made fats designed to add taste and shelf life to certain foods, but they’re bad news for our health.

A good rule of thumb is to define more natural and moderate foods as “good” foods. Let’s take a look at some common foods that you might think are healthy but can fit the criteria as annoying and ruin your calorie intake.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is one of the unofficial foodstuffs in the American diet. Whether you eat it on top of certain meals or on its own as a treat, the truth is that it contains a lot of calories per serving. An actual serving of 2 tablespoons (not an ice cream scoop) yields about 190 calories and 16 grams of fat. It’s easy to overestimate meals especially with such a delicious dessert, but moderation is key.

Furthermore, regular peanut butter contains man-made hydrogenated oils that can cause health problems over time and increase sugar. However, natural peanut butter contains healthy unsaturated fats that are derived from the peanuts themselves. Therefore, if you decide to include moderate amounts of peanut butter in your diet, choose the natural type.

The nutrition label on the Jif jar specifies 2 tablespoons per serving, but how well do you meet what 2 tablespoons looks like? Especially with utensils of different sizes, cutting back on portions can lead to a significant increase in calories over the course of the week.


Not only is supplementation the world’s best, but it has also somehow become an unofficial requirement when cutting calories for fat loss. However, many of them contain hidden calories. Whether it’s supplements like creatine that may include fillers like sugar or protein powders and meal replacements that can add extra processed carbs, it’s essential that you read labels and consider these extra calories in your diet.

improved water

Enhanced water comes as nourishing as it is marketed to include vital vitamins and minerals. Some are even said to be fortified with protein. While all of this may be true, many of them also contain copious amounts of sugar that can secretly increase your calorie count.

protein bars

Some may classify protein bars as a food supplement. In many ways they are. Those who train regularly, pack a lunch for work, and/or track their eating habits may use protein bars for a pre- or post-workout snack, mid-morning meal, or want to add more protein to their diet. However, many contain added sugar and other carb fillers to add flavor and texture. Every other manufacturer claims better taste, better nutrition, and higher quality ingredients. Take care. Some are as good as a piece of candy.

Gluten-free baked goods

Whether you’re allergic to gluten, have celiac disease, or decide to reduce or eliminate gluten from your diet, one thing is for sure, the food industry has taken full advantage of the trend. But buyers beware. Just like the low-fat craze years ago where sugar was added in many foods to replace fat, so the gluten-free craze adds other ingredients to make up for texture and flavor. Being gluten-free isn’t a magic bullet for making your calorie count obsolete.

Gluten Free Cupcake


Store-bought smoothies are often loaded with added sugar, highly processed fruit purees, and other ingredients that are either not listed or are part of some kind of proprietary blend. Plus, since most, if not all, juices are appetizing, they are consumed quickly and leave you wanting more. It is very easy to eat a large amount of calories in a short period of time.

healthy fats

Too much of a good thing is probably, well, too much. Healthy fats like avocado, nuts, and olive oil still contain fat. Yes, it’s a healthy variety, but one gram of fat equals about nine calories compared to protein and carbohydrates, which have four calories per gram. With more than twice as many calories, calories can build up into fat quickly. A little goes a long way.

How to choose healthy foods

All of the above foods can be categorized as healthy foods, however, moderation is key when it comes to fats and sugar. Let’s take a look at how these foods can become our allies in the bigger picture of an entire eating plan.

Look at the poster

Yes, food guidelines on food labels are not necessarily an exact science, but they will give us a visual guide regarding serving sizes, calories, and other nutrient information. The serving size of peanut butter listed above is a great example.

You can even take it one step further and keep a record of your eating habits. In fact, a 2008 study from Science Daily took 1,700 participants and some of them kept a food diary. Those who doubled their weight loss as opposed to those who kept no records [2].

One easy app that Andrew, founder and editor of Primer, has been tracking his calories in for over 4 years is Under Armour’s MyFitnessPal.

Added sugars on the nutrition label

Reduce fat and added sugar

As we’ve seen, many foods contain hidden fats and added sugars to improve taste and texture. One of the most effective ways to change your eating habits at first is to simply limit these amounts without overhauling your entire diet. It’s a subtle way to reduce overall calories because a gram of fat contains more than twice as many calories as protein and carbs.

So, in addition to looking at labels and serving sizes, look for specific food options that have little to no added sugars and low in fat.

Prioritize protein

Protein will help you feel full for longer. A study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that a diet that prioritizes protein helps individuals achieve higher levels of satiety, feelings of fullness, and retention of lean muscle mass. [3].

Even a small increase in protein can have a profound effect on your total calorie intake. If you prioritize protein throughout the day, you will feel full and avoid overeating.

Years ago it was fat, now it's carbs.  The fact of the matter is that moderation is still the dominant principle that has stood the test of time.

Misinformation about carbohydrates

It seems like every decade or so we shift gears on the macronutrients that are the bad guys. Years ago it was fat, now it’s carbs. The fact of the matter is that moderation is still the dominant principle that has stood the test of time.

We still need carbohydrates for simple bodily functions such as brain and pulmonary activity as well as to provide energy for our workouts. Stick to complex carbohydrates like oatmeal, sweet potatoes, rice, and whole wheat bread.

Pay attention to the total calories

All the advice above is to say that your total calories don’t count. If you can work on these little tweaks one by one, over time you’ll have made some huge shifts in your diet and wellness. It doesn’t require you to turn your entire world upside down. Work with what you have, make adjustments, and be patient.

in conclusion

Don’t let these foods ruin your diet. Some are not satisfied with moderation, but be careful to read labels and practice portion control. Also, just because a product claims to be healthy or uses attractive local language does not prove worthwhile in achieving your goals. The more balanced, natural foods you eat, the better for you to have a healthier body.

  1. Trexler, Eric & Smith-Ryan, Abbie & Norton, and Layne. (2014). Metabolic adaptation to weight loss: implications for the athlete. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 11. 7. 10.1186/1550-2783-11-7.
  2. Kaiser Permanente. (2008, July 8). A study suggests that keeping a food diary doubles the weight loss on the diet. science daily. Retrieved on January 12, 2022 from

Douglas Paddon-Jones, Eric Westman, Richard de Mattis, Robert R. Wolfe, Arne Astrup, Margaret Westerrup Plantinga, Protein, Weight Management, and Satiety, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Volume 87, No. 5, May 2008, pp. 1558S-1561S,

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