Why you were leaner at uni
“I've never thought about that”
Fat gain is a component of body recomposition that is systematically overlooked.
It’s easy to get caught up in fat loss - strategy, goals, timeframes and such - without giving any consideration to what caused the gain in the first place.
What typically happens when people decide they want to lose body fat is they embark on a journey to find the program/diet/trainer that will deliver the result in the shortest timeframe.
The timeframe plays a very important role in this equation because it dictates how intense the regime must be.
Most people want to lose 4-8kg and have a timeframe of 8-12 weeks dictated by a holiday/wedding/reunion or simply an arbitrary time that denotes a good return on investment.
In the fitness industry, we deal with people who have decided to implement change and want to do it now.
They come in all motivated and ready to rock and/or roll, looking for hard training sessions and a rigid meal plan.
It’s pretty common to hear something along the lines of “I’m good when I have a plan - I just need something to stick to!”
For us, this is great. We tend to be people who genuinely can stick a meal plan, if we want to, and enjoy exercise.
We think you might be one of us - who’s maybe been in hiding for a bit - so we also get fired up wanting to get a rapid transformation.
But most of the time it’s too good to be true, for the both of us.
It turns out you can’t stick to the plan for very long because it’s drastically different to what your lifestyle has been for the past year or so.
That’s our fault - we didn’t actually give you the coaching that you need. Instead, we give you a personalised variation of what we do.
It works for us - so we assumed it will work for you too (if you do the work).
Unfortunately, you didn’t, so it doesn’t.
We need to know more about you.
And for that reason, having made all of these mistakes many times, I now ask my clients one simple question when they come up with a weight target or fat loss goal...
“When did you last weigh [insert goal here]?”
I Was In Better Shape When I Was At Uni!
I work with busy professionals aged in their late-twenties and early-thirties and their response is to this question is remarkably similar.
Somewhere between the start of the final year at uni and the end of their first year in the workplace is when they last weighed the amount they now aspire to.
I estimate that two-thirds of new clients list this 24-month period as when they last tipped the scales at their new target weight.
There are a couple of things I need to get these clients to consider...
Firstly, they have gained fat over the past 4-6 years and now the goal is to lose it all in 8-12 weeks.
It is entirely possible, but the regime required to do that is going to be very different to what they are doing now.
This begs the question: how long will they be able to stick it?
Secondly, it seems bizarre that when you were at university - where your food choices and drinking preferences didn’t entirely embody health - you weighed less than you do now.
Doesn’t alcohol have as many calories as fat? (yes, similar).
So how could it possibly be that you were in better shape back then?
Simply put, you now move less and eat more than you did back then.
Let me explain why this happened.
You Were On The Move At Uni
Many people were in great shape during their time at university because they were playing sports or had the time to make the gym a priority.
I was one of them (#glutesovertutes).
But I’m not too worried about that type of organised sport or training in the gym - many people keep that up when they enter the workplace.
Instead, I want to focus on something neat.
Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT) is energy expended from physical activity that is not exercising. It refers to things like walking to your car or going shopping.
NEAT is physical activity, in the sense that you are moving, but it’s not dedicated exercise or training.
You don’t try to walk between your car and office faster each week, do you?
NEAT is sometimes referred to as incidental exercise.
I want you to think back to your student days - you were probably on your feet quite a lot.
You had to walk between lectures and tutes, and that was after parking illegally 2km so you didn’t have to pay.
Most of the jobs that uni students work in - such as retail and hospitality - involve standing on your feet for long periods of time.
Four six-hour shifts each week equates to an entire day of low-moderate intensity activity, and that’s from work alone!
As a result of this increased walking and standing, your energy expenditure from NEAT would have been much greater than it is currently.
Now you walk to the car/bus/train, sit down, get out, walk to the office, sit down, get up for lunch, sit down, walk back to the office, sit down, walk to the car/bus/train, sit down, walk to the house, sit down on the couch, walk to bed, sleep.
The walking and time-on-feet from university and working have been replaced by sitting at a desk for the majority of the day.
This means the average amount of energy you expend daily has decreased, making it much easier to gain fat.
You Eat More Calories Now
The stereotypical uni student might be construed as living off two-minute noodles and stale bread, but that probably wasn’t you.
I know it certainly wasn’t me - I don’t think I’ve eaten those noodles since I was 15.
Instead, you had a budget that allocated less money to food but you still ate well.
You even ate out every now and then, albeit pretty simple restaurants and the occasional lazy takeaway.
And when you were there you definitely weren’t ordering an entree and dessert.
But thing have changed now and you find yourself eating out more, getting more food delivered, and your social engagements seem to revolve around the 3B’s (I’ll explain).
You eat more when you’re out
While you were at uni you weren’t ordering anything that wasn’t a schnitzel, burger, salad, or on the specials menu.
Now that you are a big shot, or at least not picking up the bill, it’s all about entrees, desserts, and a few drinks to wash it all down.
This comes at a caloric cost.
If you were to order just a main course and a drink, I would be budgeting anywhere from 600-1000 calories for the meal.
But if you add in a 200-400 calorie entree, a 300-600 calorie dessert, and 200-300 calories from another couple of drinks, there are another 700-1300 calories ON TOP of the main meal!
Food delivery apps have changed the game. However, as their uptake and food options grow, so does your waistline.
Do you remember when you had to walk into a place to pick up your food?
I do - it was awful.
There were some times when all you wanted to eat was a burger with the lot, bulk chips with chicken salt and a vanilla coke.
But then you had to get in the car, order, and then wait in a dodgy carpark.
You then also inevitably ran into someone you knew, whilst you were carrying enough food for a small family and a drink for one.
“How’s the business [giving fitness and nutrition advice] going?” they would ask.
You tell me.
This extra layer of effort made takeaway less accessible because there were always meals you could cook in the time it took to go and get take away.
Then food delivery apps came along...
Now we can avoid the chip-induced shame and awkward small talk, well at least until the driver gets to the door.
The only downside is that most deliveries are calorie bombs, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, you’re going to be eating a more energy-dense version of anything that you would cook yourself.
Restaurants want you to enjoy your food, so it’s often involved a lot of butter and oil for taste.
Have you ever seen how much butter goes into the mashed potato?
It will change your life.
Secondly, you will order more food - partly because you think you’re getting better value for the delivery fee.
“It will cost me $5 to get a $20 pad thai delivered. Hang on, if I order spring rolls and rice cakes I can get that all for $5 too. I’ve beaten the system!”
The delivery fee should be seen as a convenience toll for the fact that you didn’t have to leave the couch to find sustenance.
Getting more for the same fee shouldn't be a win in your life.
The end result is that you eat a lot more food than if you cook something yourself.
I know what you’re thinking: “but once a week isn’t bad”
No, it isn’t.
The problem lies when the order frequency increases.
Friday night turns into Thursday/Friday, and then Monday is added because you didn’t have time to shop on the weekend.
Beers, burgers and brunch
Anything you do with other humans now seems to involve food.
There’s a strong chance that any interaction you schedule with a friend/s, couple/s or family will involve the three B’s - beers, burgers or brunch.
You learned when you were younger that coffee was a great option because there was enough ambiguity over the accepted duration.
But now you don’t want to to do that to your friends, so you schedule brunches, lunches and drinks to catch up with them.
Like ordering food delivery once per week, this isn’t problematic on its own.
Sure, you probably eat and drink a bit more food than you need, but that’s a big deal once per week.
However, it’s when it all starts to compile that the issue comes up.
A couple of lunches throughout the week.
A few drinks with friends.
It all compiles, adding to the energy intake without increasing expenditure.
The result is weight gain.
Not a lot, and not all that quickly.
But slowly you start putting on a few kilograms until one day you notice the change.
What’s The Solution?
You have to consume less energy from food.
I doubt that was a breakthrough moment for anyone, but that really is the crux of it.
You need a strategy to decrease your energy intake in some way or another.
That doesn’t mean you can’t eat out, get food delivered, or never partake in the 3B’s.
You can keep all of that in your life, you just need to be a bit smarter about it.
Avoid the entree, decline dessert, skip the chips - there are plenty of easy changes you can make to decrease your energy intake without cooking every meal from scratch.
It requires some planning ahead, so you know what foods to avoid, but it really doesn’t need to be too complex.
What About Exercise?
If you decide to move more than you are now, you will get faster body composition changes than if you didn’t.
However, it can be optimal to look at fat loss over a longer period of time. Instead focusing on tightening up the diet for now.
It really depends on how much change you are ready and willing to implement. Most people tend to overestimate how much they can change, which leads to non-adherence and demotivation.
How Fast Can I Lose Fat?
The rate of weight loss will depend on how many much energy can be removed from the diet and expenditure added through physical activity.
If you want to lose 1kg per week, you will need to modify these variables quite a bit.
You can still eat out, but it has to be lower-calorie options or with a different nutrition strategy throughout the day.
But if you’re happy to lose 1kg per fortnight or month, then the scale of change can come back a touch.
You might alternate your standard meals with lower-calorie options, or a similar strategy.
I guess it’s like saving for a $5K holiday.
You can either $100 per week over the course of the year or $400 per week over three months.
Some people prefer the progressive approach while others are happy to deprive themselves for a shorter period of time.
Where it gets hard is people who leave it to the last minute but only have $100 in their budget to save.
My job is to explain to them what we will need to change in their expenditure to be able to save the remaining $300 per week, or else consider booking the holiday later in the year!