Your meal pattern, especially with the “splurge” meal is likely the main reason. You are what, 5-7 years older than when you were really lean? Most people more easily get fat when they get older. I know that I can’t get away with barely eating during the day and splurging in the evening anymore.
Plus understand that having cortisol constantly elevated (there is a difference between chronic and acute cortisol elevation) can lead to insulin resistance; which of course makes it easier to pile on fat and harder to gain muscle.
Cortisol breaks down muscle glycogen and frees it up. When that happens during hard training, that’s fine because you will burn that glucose. But if it happens when you are inactive or just walking around (so the cortisol increase is more from psychological/emotional stress… but it still elevate blood glucose). then you elevate blood glucose levels but you don’t burn it. Since the body doesn’t want to have elevated blood glucose levels, it will release insulin to lower glucose back down. If cortisol stays elevated a vicious cycle starts which leaves both your cortisol and insulin pretty much elevated all day long. And when it comes to insulin sensitivity there is nothing worse than having insulin elevated above baseline constantly… a small amount over baseline constantly is WAAAAAYYYYY worse than having a big insulin spike once in a while.
As an asian you naturally have good insulin sensitivity; which likely allowed you to eat a certain way and stay/get lean. But maybe over the past few years you became a lot less sensitive and now as a result you just can’t get away with the things you used to be able to get away with.
Anyway from your post you are doing everything possible to have high cortisol levels (some things you can’t control) and that likely made you more resistant to insulin. Which is only reinforced by your eating pattern. And that splurge meal is having a devastating impact on your body comp.
When I’m in a stressed situation I find that I need a perfect diet to stay lean and avoid water retention. A few years back I could eat whatever (provided that calories were not excessive) but now I simply can’t do that.
Cortisol also makes you retain water. But in your case I think that you are more fat than retaining water. Water retention is a real issue. But few people have a REAL problem with it on a regular basis. I do retain 6-9lbs of water after long trip and look like crap. But that is not something normal. YES my weight fluctuates due to water retention and on some days I look a bit leaner. But if you are lean the normal fluctuations in water retention is not enough to “make you look out of shape” all by itself.
Finally, chronically elevated cortisol levels decrease the T4 to T3 conversion which can decrease your metabolic rate over time. Even worse, it can also elevated Thyroid Binding Protein 3 which can make T3 inactive by binding to it. Of course decreasing metabolic rate even more,
I will tell you this though: when I’m in my high stress periods (when I’m giving seminars 2-3 times per month internationally or have to produce lots of videos and content) my physique does degrade even if I’m doing everything to avoid that. Stress and cortisol is THAT powerful.
That’s why when I prepped for my last photo shoot I took 2 months completely off… no seminars, only one day of video, minimal writing, no traveling. Heck I even started training at a “Bro gym” instead of the performance center I normally go to because the bro gym is 3 minutes away by car while the performance center is 40 min away and I often stuck in traffic!
And that’s why with every seminar I give my physique gets a lot worse in a short time and it takes me 7-10 days upon my return to look and perform close to how I did before I left. I recently was away for 2 weeks and my body weight is the same but my look is not as good. It’s now 7 days after my return and I’m starting to look acceptable again, but it will take me another week to get back to about 95-97%. That is sadly the reality of stress and that’s why I mentioned that my goal this year was to maintain 90-95% of what I achieved at my last photo shoot by the end of beginning of December. If I can do that I have December off and might be able to get back to 97 or even 100%. Then the challenge will be to maintain 90-95% over the first 4 months of 2018, which are pretty crazy for me (Japan, Poland, Brazil, Dubai, etc.).
Trust me it sucks. I wish I could continue on progressing during those stressful months, or at least stay the same. But that’s how bad stress affects me. Note that not everybody is like that. Neurotype 1A individuals are not affected by stress much, My friend and Canada’s strongest man JF Caron will have done a total of 20 strongman competitions this year; travelling all over the world. Heck, when he competed at the Arnold Classic Australia he left Wednesday, arrived Thursday (20 hours flight), competed Friday and finished 3rd (Brian Shaw won), 0.5 pts behind second. The next weekend he was back in Canada, competing and winning. He is not negatively affected by stress at all!
From what I know of you I suspect that you are a type 2A like me. And 2A while not as bad as types 3 at handling stress, are not that good.
That’s why a lot of people who were in great shape in college can never seem to get back to that kind of shape once they start to have more life stress, even if they keep training hard. For these people to reach the same level they easily achieved in their youth they will have to do everything perfect. And even then there is no guarantee. That’s one of the reason why high level bodybuilders and physque competitors don’t have stressful jobs (most rely on sponsorship, coaching and using social medias). Very few can make good progress when their stress level is high, even with all the drugs they are taking.
What am I saying? That your reality is different now. As such you simply cannot have the same success you had in the past using the same methods. you will have to do everything possible to reduce cortisol production. You will have to get rid of all the dietary habits that can lead to inflamation (whether it’s food choices or the amount of food eaten at a meal). You will have to change the way you train because you can’t afford to have the same cortisol release from training. You will have to analyze your reliance on stimulants. Etc.
Can you get back in shape? Sure. But understand that in your current situation it will be a TON harder than it once was.
I worked with a figure competitor. Normally I can take any girl who looks decent and get her in good condition in 12-14 weeks. Take my wife for example. She got photo shoot ready in 8 weeks and she had not trained for a year and was 30lbs overweight.
But the figure girl I mentioned. She came up to me a year before her competition. My plan was to do a 2 months “test” prep to get her near competition shape to see what we needed to work on and how her body reacted. Then take 5 months to build more muscle and 4 months to get contest ready.
Well after the 2 months of “pre cut” she had progressed about as much as my wife did in 3 weeks! And she was doing everything PERFECT!
I got her contest ready, but we needed 10 months to do so!
And she wasn’t fat to start with. She was actually a good athlete. But she had a very stressful job (police officer) and was having relationship problems.
She got in contest shape (got 2nd out of 12) but she had to be perfect for 10 months! Not a single cheat during that time for example.
It took her about 3-4 more time to get in good shape than everybody else I worked with.
That is the reality of stress and “real life”. And that’s why you don’t see that many natural people getting into GREAT shape in between 26-40… physically they should be able to do it. But the stress of life is their worst enemy.
From 18-23 is where you will see the most good looking physques (not huge but looking lean, tight and muscular)
From 24-35 you see less and less because of the stress of “real life”
Oddly enough from 35 to 45 you actually see a bit more people get in great shape. They are more settled in, less stress and still physically capable of improvements
From 45-55 you see less and less people who are in great shape. Some people moved on, but there is the reality of aging that can affect anabolic hormones and it becomes increasingly harder to build muscle and stay lean. At 45 or even 40 I think it’s smarted to focus on getting/staying lean while maintaining muscle mass.
After 55 the reality will have hit pretty much everybody… unless using at least TRT you will lose a lot of muscle and get fatter. You can still be in very good shape… but you will be “in great shape for someone in their 50s”
If I were you; I would focus on getting super lean then go from there (well that’s actually what I did).
Let’s be brutally honest here: If you had the genetics to be “big” you would already be big by now. You’ve been at it seriously for what, 8+ years? If you were build to have a lot of size you would have it.
That having been said you KNOW you can get super lean and you looked awesome when you were lean. I would recommend that you stop chasing something you are not designed to be and focus on what you know you can achieve. Otherwise you just end up like you are now: average in everything.
Then when you do get back to being super lean you can gradually build some muscle in the right places to look better.
Trust me, it is a hard pill to swallow. I always wanted to be something like 260 and lean. Despite being an “expert” the best I could ever achieve as 215 and lean, 222 and “ok” , 228 and soft and 240 fat. Sometimes we are just not built for what we dream of. But now I’m 202 and very lean and although I’m not as big in clothes as I once was, i have one of the best physique everywhere I go, and it’s good enough for me.
Heck I know that in the next few years I will likely VERY slowly get smaller. Unless I were to take big doses of steroids, which I can’t do due to my health condition. That is the reality of aging. Bu you know what? If I stay super lean, even if I go down to 185 (which I haven’t been since high school) I would still be ok with that. BUT If I tried to stay 215 no matter what, I would simply look a little bit worse every year. The bad thing is that you don’t really see it happening until it’s “too late”.
Actually happened to me 3 years ago. Lost some muscle because of my health condition. And as I tried to get back up I only focused on reaching 222 and stay there. I got there but when I took some pictures I noticed that I looked like crap.