Stop Smoking and Gain Weight? Not Necessarily!

Congratulations! You’ve decided to quit smoking. You know it’s a smart move—quitting cigarette smoking is the number one thing you can do to dramatically improve your health and avoid several potentially life threatening illnesses. You're feeling ready and committed to breaking the habit once and for all.

Or are you? Is there a little voice in the back of your mind warning you that if you do stop smoking, you are sure to gain some weight? Is that little voice causing you to hesitate, and delay the big step for a while? Are you thinking you want to get a little closer to your goal weight before embarking on this next big lifestyle change?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, that is OK. It makes sense that you are fearful about gaining weight when you quit cigarettes. Research says that the majority of adults gain an average of five to eight pounds when they kick the cigarette habit, and there are many reasons why this happens. However, with some planning, education and insight, it is not an inevitable consequence. There are tools and techniques you can use to keep the scale steady.

First, let’s get an understanding of why weight gain can be a problem when you give up smoking. Smokers may have a slightly elevated metabolism due to the calorie burning effect of smoking. It’s estimated that smoking cigarettes burns between 200-250 extra calories per day. Nicotine acts as an appetite suppressant, so you may eat less. Along with the fact that many replace the urge to smoke with eating, daily caloric intake can easily escalate.

Nicotine also increases serotonin, the neurotransmitter that leads to relaxed and calm feelings. When the levels of serotonin decrease, we end up feeling irritable, cranky and stressed. To complicate matters, carbohydrates increase our serotonin levels, which explains the cravings for starchy or sweet foods. If you are used to reaching for a cigarette to calm down when faced with outside stressors, and you’re working hard to get cigarettes out of your life, food can easily become part of your stress-management toolbox.

Seasoned smokers tend to have an oral fixation; they’re used to having something in their mouth. Without cigarettes, food can become the thing that satisfies the need to keep your mouth busy. And last, but not least, stopping for a smoke is often a break in the action. It’s what you may reach for to signify the end of the meal, or a reason to take five during your workday, or just have a rest from anything you are doing. Once again, it would be easy to let food be the replacement when it’s time to take a breather (no pun, intended).

Although it may seem like the odds of not gaining weight are stacked against you, there are several things you can do to beat them. The good news is, as a SparkPeople member, you may already have lots of good habits and tools that will help you succeed. You probably know a lot about making healthy, satisfying food choices to help with weight loss and you’re most likely exercising on a regular basis. 

Let’s take a look at some of the other things you can do to avoid putting on the extra pounds when quitting cigarettes—or at least, keeping them to a minimum.
  1. Pick a "Quit Day" and pre-plan. Let your friends and family know when you plan to quit, and be specific about how you would like them to help you. —and don't want— them to do. Make a decision about what will work best for you; cutting back slowly over time or going cold turkey. Embark on this journey at a time when your stress level is low, and your schedule is fairly routine. If you are not already exercising, ask your doctor if it's appropriate for you to now, and if so, establish a routine for a few weeks before your quit date.

    2. Track your cigarette triggers for a few days before your quit date. You may notice you always smoke a cigarette after eating, or as soon as you get on the phone with your mom. Begin to brainstorm alternative activities to replace smoking. Perhaps a cup of herbal tea or brushing your teeth after each meal might help. While on the phone, keep a pad and colored pencils nearby and doodle to keep those fingers busy.

    3. Share your plans with your doctor, and have a discussion about smoking cessation tools. The prescription medication Zyban, nicotine replacement therapy patches, and support groups or counseling have all been shown to help smokers quit successfully—with less weight gain.

    4. Do a major cleanup. Take your car to be professionally cleaned. Have carpets and draperies steam cleaned. The smell of cigarettes will increase your urge to smoke, so the less residual scent, the better. Try scented candles, potpourri, or oil-infused room fresheners. Use peppermint scented products; the smell of peppermint has been shown to be an appetite suppressant.

    5. Exercise regularly, possibly even more than before. Aside from burning extra calories, working out will ease stress, help beat cravings, and . If you are not already , add it to your routine. Muscle is metabolically more active than fat tissue. So if you add more muscle to your body composition, you’ll increase your metabolism and burn more calories no matter what you are doing. During the quitting process, it can be helpful to burn an additional 100-200 calories through additional exercise each day. This will help offset the temporary decrease in your metabolism, and possibly any additional eating you're doing to compensate for not smoking.

    6. Have lots of low-cal, healthy snacks on hand at home and at work. Carrots, celery and bell-pepper sticks, air-popped popcorn, fruit, sugar-snap peas, edamame, and grape tomatoes are all low-calorie, high density .

    7. Satisfy your oral fixation with healthy alternatives. Try sugar-free lollipops, gum or hard candies. Even sucking on cinnamon sticks can help!

    8. . Drinking water will keep you feeling full, and sipping through a straw or water bottle might help with the desire to have something in your mouth.

    9. Avoid alcohol. Aside from the fact that , it is often coupled with smoking. Alcohol will also lower your inhibitions and make it more difficult to resist both overeating and cigarettes.

    10. Plan break activities. Create a list of activities that are appealing to you for when you need a break in the action. Take a walk, call a friend, read a book or magazine, do a crossword puzzle, or catch up with emails.

    11. Keep your hands busy. Rather than reaching for food when you're not even hungry, try a healthy alternative such as knitting, crocheting, giving yourself a manicure, answering emails, or playing online games.

    12. Do not go on crash diets or a VLCD (very low calorie diet). Consciously try to reduce your daily intake by just 100-200 calories per day for the next six months. This small reduction will help offset metabolic changes that happen when you stop smoking. However, don't go to extremes: When your calorie intake is too low, it decreases your metabolism and affects your mood. Both will work against you, rather than for you, when it comes to weight loss. VLCD have been shown to make dieters feel very stressed, which of course will increase your desire for food and cigarettes.

    13. Have a toolbox of stress management techniques ready and on-hand. Try massage, yoga, playing with your dog, listening to music you love, or taking a bath. If you’ve always depended on cigarettes to ease stress, have lots of other options aside from food ready and available.

    14. Join a support group. Check out the CDC's quitting support group on Facebook or look for other support groups in your area. Knowing you aren't alone can be a big help! 

    15. Be kind to yourself . Giving up cigarettes is a momentous step and trying to do so without gaining weight makes the process more challenging. Forgive yourself for minor slips, and . Plan small rewards for each progress step you make. Keep in mind the goal should be to "maintain" your current weight and put continued weight loss on hold.

So now you’ve got a plan and you’ve stacked the cards in your favor to quit smoking without gaining weight. So don’t wait! Keep in mind that the health benefits of quitting smoking far exceed the risk of 5 to 8 extra pounds. And remember, if you should gain a little weight, you’ll no doubt take off any extra pounds you picked up along the way once cigarettes are a thing of the past.

This article has been reviewed and approved by health educators Becky Hand, M.S., R.D., L.D., and Nicole Nichols
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Member Comments

great article Report
I need to consider perhaps doing ozone treatment in our house and get all our bedding/clothes/e
tc done plus remove pet odors. I'll check dry-cleaning and such but wowzers. And the lady who rented our place before us smoked in the apartment. Mgmt tried to cover it up with paint and such, but since we only smoke outdoors I know we havent been responsible for most of the reek. Report
I quit smoking several years ago. I was really concerned about weight gain as well. I didn't gain any weight. I didn't eat instead of smoking. I'm sure that's why I didn't gain any weight Report
Wish I could show it to some people I love who smoke to stay slim Report
I quit over 33 years ago and yes, I did gain weight. But then, I'd gained weight while I was smoking. Now I'm smoke free and have been at my goal weight for almost 6 years and never felt better.

We can all do it! Report
Thanks, Great! Report
Wow... I never thought of taking a few days to track smoking triggers. Great article. Report
I just celebrated 16 months smoke free after a 30-year habit! I did gain some weight but to me, the benefits of quitting outweigh the risk. Report
Thanks for the great article! :) Report
You are never too old to set another goal or to dream a new dream. - C. S. Lewis ~ 1/30/18 Report
Gave up in 96, the biggest pay rise I ever had Report
I am in my 9th smoke free month in 25 yrs, I smoked but was not unwell, could exercise ,breath well I just felt pressured by the times into giving up. If I had known then what I known the hell I was in for I would never have quit, my entire system just shut down and I've never been so unwell in my 40 years alive. I'd given up plenty of times in the past for various lengths but this time it was different, I was initially so poorly I lost 5kg and then regained it all and more when I could finally eat again, my periods stopped dead, my face exploded with cystic acne, my lower body swelled with fluid, it all started within 48 hrs of my last cigarette and my memory and mental health went downhill. In my 9th month smoke free, I'm heavier than I've ever been, I feel no better at all for quitting, in fact I feel worse. There is no difference in my energy levels, breathing or skin (apart from new acne scars) or wrinkles. Just a different perspective, this is my experience in a nutshell, giving up isn't always the best choice for everyone. It wasn't for me and there are still days when I wish I hadn't, although I'm regaining some semblance of health slowly. Report
Great article Report
This is my 4th day of non-smoking and my eating has been crazy, albeit NOT as crazy as before I started SP, so my hope is to maintain and even if I have a small gain this week, I know not smoking will benefit me so much more and eventually I will get that gain back off. I am increasing exercise and general movement because if I don't my cravings are really bad! I can do this!! Report
Great article!!! No matter your age or how many times you've tried, believe that YOU can!!!

There's always help and this article is proof of that!! Many blessings!! Report


About The Author

Ellen G. Goldman
Ellen G. Goldman
Ellen G. Goldman founded EllenG Coaching, LLC to help individuals struggling with health issues that can be impacted by positive lifestyle change, such as weight loss, stress management and work-life balance. As a national board-certified health and wellness coach and certified personal trainer, Ellen holds a B.S. and Masters in physical education and is certified by ACSM, AFAA and Wellcoaches Corporation. She is also the author of "Mastering the Inner Game of Weight Loss." and You can visit her at her website, Ellen G. Coaching, and pick up a copy of the "Busy Person's Guide to Healthy Eating on the Go."