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

It’s not often in this day and age that health experts say it’s ‘okay’ to gain weight, but this is one situation where you’ll get the tick of approval for gaining an extra kilo or two.

Several studies have shown that smokers who concentrate only on giving up their tobacco habits have a much higher success rate than those who simultaneously aim to maintain their weight. But here’s the good news: 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 strictly stick to your regular diet and exercise routine when giving up smoking, you’re still likely to gain a little bit of weight. This is because when you smoke, your body burns slightly more calories in order to cope with the carbon monoxide and other tobacco toxins you’re inhaling. Then, when you quit your metabolism slows down to more normal levels, which means you’re burning slightly fewer calories.

Another possible cause of 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 little while.

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

Don’t worry, be slimmer

Health experts now say it’s best not to worry about weight gain while you’re giving up smoking. First, focus on giving up smoking, and after you’ve achieved that goal, then worry about giving up your extra kilos. Surprisingly, this is actually your best bet for avoiding the unwanted weight.

Research shows that people who focus on both quitting smoking and weight maintenance from the outset usually wind up failing at both, and even gain extra weight in the process. In a 2003 study published by the Association for the Advancement of Behavioural Therapy, women who were encouraged not to worry about their weight only gained an average of 2.5 kg, compared with the control group who focussed on weight control and gained an average of 5.4 kg – more than double the amount of the previous group.

Quit smoking – avoid weight gain

Whether or not you decide to worry about your waistline while you’re working on giving up smoking, here are some simple ways to support your health and minimise potential weight gain, while simultaneously increasing your chances of successfully quitting.

Chewing gum. Chewing nicotine replacement gum has long been a recommended tool for assisting in the quitting process. A recent study shows chewing gum will also reduce post-quitting weight gain. Study participants who used nicotine replacement gum as part of their cessation program gained significantly less weight than those who did not use the gum. 64% of participants who used gum were also successful in quitting, compared to a 33% success rate in the group who didn’t.

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 itself. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try nicotine replacement therapy, but you could also benefit from finding behavioural substitutes, such as having a cup of coffee.

Girl power! Paying attention to simple gender differences when quitting smoking 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 minimise those low-mood withdrawal symptoms, which can really make or break your success. If you can minimise the symptoms associated with this low-mood phase, you will most likely also reduce food cravings and bad eating habits, therefore preventing unwanted weight gain.

Eat, drink, and be fit. While the most important goal is quitting smoking, eating well and exercising regularly can help increase your chances of success, and minimise the associated weight gain. A well-rounded and nutritious diet will minimise food cravings and increase energy levels, giving your body and mind more “quitting” strength. Exercise can also decrease the urge to smoke, and is a great distraction when you do get a craving. Make it an automatic reflex that when you start to experience the familiar “cigarette time” thoughts, 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 quit. Make sure it includes drinking at least 6-8 glasses of water a day to flush out any tobacco toxins. Also try to limit your caffeine intake, as the effects of caffeine can mimic nicotine withdrawal symptoms. If drinking alcohol encourages cigarette cravings, limit your intake as you readjust. However, remember the main goal is to quit smoking; if you want a coffee or a glass of wine now and then, don’t deny yourself.

Keep your 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, heart failure, or any one of the myriad of other illnesses associated with tobacco use. 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 things in perspective. Even a significant 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, and also encourage 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 link below.

References:

This article was compiled in consultation with Food.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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