Portion Distortion: Calculate How Much You Burn and Avoid Unwanted Calories

Brad Sly


Sydney, Australia


Have you ever felt that you're doing everything correctly in and out of the gym, but no matter how hard you try you can't shift that stubborn body fat? What if it was as simple as the amount of food on your plate?


What if I told you that maybe, just maybe, you were suffering from portion distortion and that by addressing this issue you could start to reach your hard earned goals much faster and with much more gusto? I know what you're thinking and, yes, it could definitely be that easy. But first, what on earth is portion distortion?



What is Portion Distortion?

The free medical dictionary defines portion distortion as an upward shift in the size and calorie count of a serving of a particular food served to the general public, occurring especially in fast-food restaurants. In order to deal with portion distortion, we first need to understand what a portion is and what a serving is.


A portion is the amount of food you choose to eat for a meal or a snack. A serving is a measured or recommended amount of food or drink. Your daily-recommended quantity may be more than one serving of a particular food or drink.


basal metabolic rate, caloric intake, daily calories, counting calories


The problem that arises for most people trying to lose weight is the portion we choose to serve ourselves or those served to us are generally not a standard serving. This allows for a greater caloric intake than what is needed. This can be seen when looking at the food labels of products.


You may buy a product and consume it in one setting, but on the label it will actually be indicated that the product contains two to three servings. This means you will have consumed double to triple what you needed. For example, a serving of cooked pasta is one half cup. But the portion you put on your plate may measure three cups. That equals six servings.


Reasons for Portion Distortion?

The reason for this portion distortion is that serving sizes have steadily increased in size over the last two decades to such a degree that massive meals are considered normal. You can see how sizes have changed in the chart below:



Food or Beverage

1980s (calories)

Today (calories)

French Fries

210 calories

610 calories


140 calories

350 calories

Slice of Pizza

500 calories

850 calories


85 calories

250 calories

Source: NYC Health


The chart shows the amazing difference in the actual size increase of various foods over the last few decades. It's no wonder some people think they are eating right but could be eating half their day’s caloric intake in one meal, which is quite disturbing not to mention waist increasing.


Obviously everyone knows eating a large bag of Doritos is a nutritional no-no, but the over consumption of "healthy foods" like grain seed breads, seasonal vegetables and fruit, nut butters, and top quality meat sources can also hinder your goals. We tend to give ourselves permission to binge on these healthy choices because they are "healthy."


basal metabolic rate, caloric intake, daily calories, counting calories




But fat loss is not as straightforward as a math equation because then it really would be as simple as consuming 500 calories fewer each day to lose a pound of fat each week. It's never that simple when it comes to the human body, however, and everyone will have different caloric needs depending on their goals and exercise regimen.


In essence, if you consume more than you burn you will put on weight and if you burn more than you consume you can be effective at fat loss. That sounds simple, but moving forward from there requires you knowing how much you burn.


Managing Your Caloric Intake

In order to manage portion distortion you will need to know what your daily calorie needs are and then work out how many calories per meal you need to meet your goals. The Harris-Benedict formula is a great way to get an estimate of your maintenance level if all you know is your body weight.


For fat loss, create a 20-30% deficit below maintenance. For muscle gain create a 20-30% surplus above maintenance. Note: BMR = basal metabolic rate, which is the amount of energy you require for normal body functions at rest. This does not take into account any activity you may perform.



  • Men: BMR = 66 + (13.7 X wt in kg) + (5 X ht in cm) - (6.8 X age in years)
  • Women: BMR = 655 + (9.6 X wt in kg) + (1.8 X ht in cm) - (4.7 X age in years)



  • 1 inch = 2.54 cm.
  • 1 kilogram = 2.2 lbs.



  1. You are a 30 year old female, 5'6" tall (167.6 cm) and 120 lbs. (54.5 kilos)
  2. Your BMR = 655 + 523 + 302 - 141 = 1339 calories/day


Once you know your BMR, you can calculate your maintenance level by multiplying your BMR by your activity multiplier from the chart below:


Activity Multiplier:

  • Sedentary = BMR X 1.2 (little or no exercise, desk job)
  • Lightly active = BMR X 1.375 (light exercise/sports 1-3 days/wk)
  • Moderately active = BMR X 1.55 (moderate exercise/sports 3-5 days/wk)
  • Very active = BMR X 1.725 (hard exercise/sports 6-7 days/wk)
  • Extra active = BMR X 1.9 (hard daily exercise/sports & physical job or 2X day training, i.e marathon, competition etc.)



  1. Your BMR is 1339 calories per day
  2. Your activity level is moderately active (work out 3-4 times per week)
  3. Your activity factor is 1.55
  4. Your Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE) = 1.55 X 1339 = 2075 calories/day


Once you know what your total calories for the day are you can be better prepared as you can then investigate what the size of each portion needs to be in order to meet your TDEE each and every day.


Tips to Avoid Portion Distortion

  • Measure and weigh your food.
  • Read food labels carefully.
  • Leave food serving dishes in the kitchen. Use smaller plates, bowls, and glasses.
  • Focus on the meal.
  • Eat slowly.
  • Listen to your body’s cues and only eat till satisfied not full.
  • Eat regular meals and snacks - every 2-3 hours is great.
  • Never eat out of the bag, box or carton.


Portion distortion is a growing threat to any person who trains and is serious about getting their results. Saying no to supersizing and "economy" packs is a great start to achieving your goals. Just remember the amount of food you eat is just as important as what you eat. So pack your fridge with lean meats and fresh produce and enjoy great tasting fresh meals, but be careful not to overindulge or you could soon be seeing an ever-expanding waistline.


Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

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