It’s true that some people gain weight after they stop smoking, but here’s what you usually don’t hear: The weight gain is often only temporary.
“About four out of five people who quit smoking will gain some weight,” says Maureen O’Brien, CNS, a master-certified tobacco treatment specialist at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “The average ex-smoker will gain about 4 to 10 pounds.” On the bright side, she adds, most people will lose the extra weight about six months after quitting. More good news: After a year, nearly 20 percent of former smokers may weigh less than they did before they stopped smoking, according to a 2012 meta-analysis of studies published in the BMJ.
Unfortunately, “the effects of weight gain are far more immediately apparent than the long-term effects of smoking,” says Richard Wender, MD, the chief cancer control officer of the American Cancer Society.
But there are ways to avoid even a short-term weight gain. Here’s what to know — and do — to ward off those annoying extra pounds.
Why People Gain Weight When They Quit Smoking
There are a number of reasons that people gain weight when they stop smoking. A big one is that nicotine speeds up your metabolism. When you stop using it, your metabolism slows to normal. According to the National Institutes of Health, cigarettes are also an appetite suppressant, so you may feel hungrier after quitting smoking. Additionally, smoking can become an oral fixation, and people will try to replace the hand-to-mouth motion with another oral activity, like eating. Instead of smoking at the end of a meal, for example, you may eat a little more, which can contribute to weight gain.
Smoking also dulls your taste buds and makes them less effective, says Bill Blatt, MPH, the national director of tobacco control programs for the American Lung Association. “People tell us all the time after they quit that food tastes so much better and is more enjoyable. I think because they’re tasting food more and enjoying it more, they may also be eating more of it.”
Minimizing and Managing Weight Gain
Dr. Wender says it’s important to warn smokers that a little weight gain is common. “Being aware that this is a risk,” he says, “and having a plan to help mitigate it prepares people for the really important task of quitting smoking.” Even if you were to gain some weight, he adds, the health benefits of quitting smoking far outweigh the health impact of the extra weight. “It cannot be emphasized enough,” Wender says, “that quitting smoking is the single most important thing you can do for your health.”
Here are seven expert tips you can use to minimize and manage weight gain when giving up smoking:
1. Plan ahead. Start working on your weight concerns before your quit date. Begin a nutrition, fitness, or weight-loss program before or at the same time as your quit program. Many tobacco treatment specialists are trained, says Wender, to “counsel you through all the problems you might face as you’re quitting, including weight gain.”
2. Use nicotine replacement therapy (NRT). NRT products like gum, lozenges, inhalers, and patches help you manage withdrawal symptoms by providing a clean, FDA-approved form of nicotine that is safer than smoking cigarettes, explains O’Brien. “They don’t make you quit smoking,” she says. “They make you feel better.” When you feel better, it’s easier to change behaviors, including those that involve smoking, diet, and exercise. Your doctor may also recommend a nonnicotine prescription medication, like bupropion or varenicline. “The evidence is very solid that quitting is more effective when you use a proven method,” Wender says. “People who use a pharmacologic aid are also less likely to gain weight than people who don’t.”
3. Learn how to manage hunger. When nicotine is no longer suppressing your appetite, you may feel hungrier. “Plan to have healthy, low-calorie snacks with you at all times so that you can grab one when you’d usually have a cigarette,” advises Everyday Heath’s nutritionist, Kelly Kennedy, RD. “A healthy snack is a great way to add protein, vitamins, and minerals to your day and keep hunger and cigarette cravings at bay.” She suggests veggie sticks with hummus, a reduced-fat cheese stick with whole-wheat crackers, or an apple with a tablespoon of peanut butter.
4. Drink more water. Kennedy recommends starting the day with a glass of water and drinking another glass whenever a craving strikes. “This will give you something to put in your mouth that isn’t a cigarette,” she says, “while encouraging good hydration, which is key to overall health and maintaining a healthy weight.” Also, drinking water (or plain seltzer with a spritz of lemon or lime juice) instead of sugary soda can help you avoid extra calories.
5. Be prepared to tackle oral fixation urges and other cravings. In addition to having healthy snacks on hand, Kennedy suggests that you chew gum or suck on sugar-free hard candies when a craving strikes. “These are great low-calorie ways to keep your mouth busy and your waistline trim,” she says. To combat cigarette and food cravings, O’Brien recommends salted popcorn or pita chips rather than potato chips, and chocolate soy milk instead of chocolate candy. You might also try a nonfood alternative like a toothpick, or distract yourself from a craving by brushing your teeth or taking up a hobby that keeps your hands busy, like knitting.
6. Get moving. Physical activity is beneficial for everyone, and it can be especially helpful when you’re trying to quit smoking and control your weight. Says Wender, “Data show that people who exercise before their quit date and through their quitting time gain less weight than those who don’t.” Exercising also boosts your feel-good hormones and helps you avoid smoking. When you feel a craving about to hit, Kennedy suggests that you go for a walk right away. “You’ll be getting some much-needed fresh air,” she says, “and you’ll burn calories, which can help keep weight off over the long term.”
7. Limit alcohol or abstain altogether. Alcohol can trigger smoking, and it can lead to weight gain because it contains calories with no nutritional value. Some alcoholic drinks contain extra calories because they’re made with sugary or fatty ingredients. In addition, alcohol, because it lowers your inhibitions, may cause you to indulge in the very behaviors you’re trying to avoid — overeating, or eating junk food — and it may make you succumb to the temptation to smoke, especially in social situations.