Going Up In Smoke: Weight gain when you quit smoking

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Many people seem to gain a couple of kilos when they quit smoking, but is it really a problem? Well, the jury’s been out for a while on this one, and the verdict seems to be: forget your weight and focus solely on the puffs (or lack of them).

It’s not often in this day and age that health experts say ‘okay’ to gain weight, but this is one situation where you’ll get an all round thumbs up for an extra kilo or two. Several studies have now shown that smokers who concentrate on the single goal of giving up their tobacco habits have a much higher success rate than those who simultaneously have the goal of weight maintenance in mind. But the really good news is that, in the end, quitters who step away from the scales actually end up gaining less weight than those who watch their waistlines.

Why the weight gain?

Even if you keep strictly to your regular diet and exercise routine when you give up smoking, you are still likely to gain a small amount of weight. That’s because when you smoke, your body burns slightly more calories in order to cope with carbon monoxide and other tobacco toxins. When you quit, your metabolism slows down to more normal levels, which means fewer calories are burnt.

Another possible reason for weight gain is that you start to taste your food again! Smoking dulls the sensitivity of your taste buds, so when you quit you start to experience the flavours of food in a more enjoyable and satisfying way. This may increase your appetite for a short while.

And of course, food is often eaten as an oral substitute for smoking and to cope with the stresses of nicotine withdrawal. You may find you consume more high-fat, high-sugar snacks and alcoholic drinks than usual, which will result in some weight gain.

Don’t worry, be slimmer

Although a few years ago the advice may have been different, health experts now say it’s best not to worry about weight gain while you’re giving up smoking. The new recommendation is to focus first on giving up smoking, and after you’ve achieved that goal, to then worry about giving up your extra kilos. This may sound like advice you don’t want to heed if you are concerned about gaining weight, but, surprisingly, it’s actually your best bet for avoiding the unwanted weight.

The research shows that people who try to focus on both smoking cessation and weight maintenance from the outset usually wind up failing at both, and even gain extra weight. In a 2003 study published by the Association for the Advancement of Behavioral Therapy, women who were encouraged not to worry about their weight only gained an average 2.5 kg compared with the control group who did focus on weight control and gained an average 5.4 kg.

Quit smoking – avoid weight gain

Whether or not you decide to worry about your waistline when you are giving up smoking, there are some simple ways to keep healthy and minimize potential weight gain, while at the same time increase your chances of successful quitting.

Chewing gum. Chewing nicotine replacement gum has long been a recommended tool for assisting in the quitting process, but a recent study shows it will also reduce post cessation weight gain. Study participants who used nicotine replacement gum as part of their cessation program gained significantly less weight than those participants who used none. 64% of participants who used the gum were also successful in quitting, compared to a 33% success rate in the group who did not use the gum.

Girl power! Paying attention to simple gender differences when quitting could make all the difference for women. For example, setting your quitting date to coincide with the earlier phase of your menstrual cycle will significantly minimize those low-mood withdrawal symptoms which can really make or break your success. If you can minimize low-mood you will most likely also reduce food cravings and bad eating habits, thus preventing unwanted weight gain.

Something else researchers have learned recently is that, in general, nicotine replacement therapy is not as effective in women as it is in men. This is because women’s dependence tends to be strongly behavioural; they miss the ritual of lighting up more than the chemical effects of the drug. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try nicotine replacement therapy, but you should also find behavioural substitutes such as having a cup of coffee.

Eat, drink, and be fit. While your most important goal is always to quit smoking, eating well and exercising regularly can help increase your chances of success, and minimize weight gain. A well-rounded and nutritious diet will minimize food cravings and increase energy, giving your body and mind more “quitting” strength. Exercise will decrease the urge to smoke and is also a great distraction when you do get a craving. Make it an automatic reflex that when you start to think “cigarette” you immediately go for a walk or run.

It’s also a good idea to have an eating and exercise plan in place before you start quitting. Make sure it includes at least 6-8 glasses of water a day to wash out tobacco toxins. Also try to limit caffeine as it can mimic nicotine withdrawal symptoms. If drinking alcohol encourages cigarette cravings, limit your intake and utilize non-smoking areas in bars and restaurants. However, remember the goal in mind is to quit smoking; if you want a coffee or a glass of wine now and then, don’t deny yourself.

The goal in mind. While most people dread the thought of putting on any extra weight, giving up smoking usually only results in a 2 – 4 kg gain, which is far easier to deal with than lung-disease or heart failure, or any one of the myriad of other illnesses associated with tobacco usage. What’s important is to keep your overall goal in mind, namely: to improve your health and longevity. If you find it hard not to worry about weight gain and feel yourself panicking over your paunch, try to keep perspective. Even a large weight gain is less harmful to your body than continuing to smoke. Compare the health effects of a few short-term kilos with the consequences of long-term nicotine addiction.

Support. A challenge as difficult as giving up smoking should never be attempted alone. If you have a friend or family member who also wants to quit, keep in regular contact with that person so you can discuss your highs and lows with each other, encourage each other and learn from each other. Another option is to join a smoking cessation program. You can ask your doctor or pharmacist about programs in your area, or visit the links below.

References :

This article was compiled in consultation with CalorieKing.com.au experts and in reference to the following sources:

Amanda Druckman, ‘No More Excuses: Weight gain and smoking,’ Pshychology Today, May 2000

Michele D.Levine, Marsha D. Marcus, Kenneth A. Perkins, ‘Women, Weight, and Smoking: A Cognitive Behavioral Approach to Women’s Concerns About Weight Gain Following Smoking Cessation,’ Behavior Therapy, Spring 2003, Vol 10: No2.

Newswire, ‘Study Shows Chewing Nicorette Gum Leads to Significantly Less Weight Gain While Quitting Smoking,’ Nov 2003

NIDDK, ‘You Can Control Your Weight as You Quit Smoking,’ www.niddk.nih.gov

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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