Weight gain is a common reason smokers give when refusing to try to quit. It is true that quitting smoking can lead to weight gain. Four out of five smokers who quit gain some weight, but on average it’s only between 4 and 10 pounds. Just 10 percent experience a more significant weight gain of as much as 30 pounds.
When you stop to consider the damage that smoking does to your body, worrying if quitting will derail your weight loss plan isn’t a reason to keep puffing. There are steps smokers can take to help limit or even head off weight gain while they quit. And for those who do gain some weight, within six months of quitting, most have taken off at least some of that weight gain.
Smoking: Physical Effects on Weight
Smoking affects the body in ways that contribute to lower weight — that’s part of the reason why you gain weight when you quit:
- Metabolism. Nicotine increases the metabolism of smokers, causing them to burn more calories than non-smokers, even while at rest. This comes at a cost to your health, however: By artificially boosting your metabolism through cigarettes, you run the risk of developing high blood pressure and heart disease. When you quit smoking, you lose the temporary metabolic boost you got after each cigarette.
- Appetite suppressant. Nicotine creates spikes in the sugar and fat levels in your body. This fools your body into thinking you have eaten, so you don’t feel hungry. When you quit smoking, you naturally begin to feel hungrier more frequently, and often for fatty or sugary foods that are bad for you.
Smoking: Psychological Effects on Weight
There also are psychological factors associated with smoking that contribute to weight gain when you quit:
- Cravings. Sometimes people going through nicotine withdrawal will mistake their craving for a cigarette as hunger for food. “We know that quitting smoking can improve your health tremendously, but when someone quits smoking they want to replace that habit with something else,” says dietitian Sari Greaves, RD, of the Step Ahead Weight Loss Center in Bedminster, N.J. and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. “They begin to eat more.”
- Signaling. Smokers tend to top off a meal with a cigarette. Their bodies learn to interpret this as a sign that the meal is over. When you stop smoking, you may have trouble pushing away from the dinner table, since you are no longer sending out that signal.
- Oral gratification. Many ex-smokers say they miss the feeling of something in their mouth or something to do with their hands. Eating can fill those needs, but at the cost of weight gain.
Smoking: Avoiding Weight Gain When You Quit
People may fear they will gain weight and be unattractive if they quit smoking. To get over those fears, think of all the ways quitting smoking will make you more attractive:
- Your breath will improve.
- Your clothes and hair won’t smell of stale smoke.
- Your skin will look healthier and have fewer wrinkles.
- Your voice will be clearer.
And weight gain is not a given. You can take many steps to limit or stop weight gain when you quit smoking:
- Become more physically active. Try to get in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week. This can help replace the metabolic boost you once got from smoking. Exercise also can depress appetite and relieve some of the stress you might be feeling over quitting.
- Eat regular meals. Try eating small meals only a few hours apart to head off food cravings.
- Choose healthy snacks. Baby carrots, celery sticks, and sugar-free mints can help ease your need for oral gratification without adding significant calories. Avoid sweets, which are usually high in fat, sugar, and calories.
- Limit the fats in your diet. You may be craving fatty foods, but keep in mind that a gram of fat has nine calories versus four calories in a gram of carbohydrate or protein.
The argument to keep smoking to avoid weight gain really holds no currency: Even if you gain five pounds, isn’t that worth a longer lifespan?