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