10 Tips to Avoid Weight Gain When You Quit Smoking

A woman wearing an apron, sitting at a table, sprinkling herbs into a bowl of vegetable stew.
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Statistics tell us that most people who quit smoking gain some weight initially. On average, that gain is between 5 to 10 pounds. And for a lot of folks, it is temporary and falls back off within the first year of smoking cessation.

For some of us, however, the weight gained stays put and/or grows. Reasons for this can include things like a slowing metabolism due smoking cessation or menopause, but most often it is really only about eating more calories in the course of a day than you did as a smoker.

If you haven't quit smoking yet, take a little time to stock your kitchen with healthy snacks and think about what you'll do to stay on track with food once you stop smoking. A little preparation can go a long way toward helping you avoid the need to invest in a larger wardrobe to fit your new, nonsmoking self.

Set Realistic Goals

Perhaps the easiest way to keep your head above water with cessation and weight control is to avoid overloading yourself with too many expectations. Smoking cessation, while far from impossible, is hard work for most of us early on. Starting a new diet at the same time that you quit smoking is a lot to juggle.

Many folks get energized by quitting tobacco and decide to tackle other challenges they have in life at the same time. When this happens, it can be hard to do everything and eventually, everything suffers. We suffer a smoking relapse and usually go back to poor eating habits.

Just focus on maintaining your current weight while you manage nicotine withdrawal and the months beyond it. Once you're comfortable with your smoke-free status, you can turn your attention to shedding any extra weight you're carrying.

Why Food Becomes a Substitute for Smoking

For new ex-smokers, food often takes on a new importance that can quickly become an unhealthy obsession if we're not careful.

Why?

In part, it has to do with needing a replacement for the act of smoking. Smokers have a powerful hand-to-mouth association and eating is a hand-to-mouth activity. But also, food simply tastes better without cigarette tar clogging delicate taste buds on our tongues. It's not uncommon for ex-smokers to note that some foods taste entirely different than they did when they smoked.

And then there is the fact that food signals comfort for many of us.  That sense of comfort comes for a dopamine rush in the brain, which happens to be the same mechanism for smoking "enjoyment". Researchers believe dopamine is a key factor in addiction, be it to nicotine, food, alcohol or other addictive substances.  It's no wonder then that we reach for food when craving a smoke. 

While we cannot stop eating like we've stopped smoking, we can make choices that will help us avoid weight gain and even enhance how we feel physically.

A diet rich in nutrients helps us to be at our physical and emotional best, which, in turn makes it easier to maintain the daily effort that is necessary during the first months of smoking cessation.

Use the tips below to help you start thinking creatively about how to use food as a tool for good health rather than a replacement for smoking.

10 Tips For Minimizing Quit-Related Weight Gain

  • Pay attention to portions.
    Downsize serving sizes: Use a lunch-size plate rather than a dinner plate, and stop after one plate full.
  • Read labels.
    Aim for foods low in fat and high in protein and fiber. And speaking of portion sizes, be sure to check packaged food labels for portion sizes as well.
  • Keep temptation out of the house.
    If it's not there, you can't eat it. Stock the fridge and cupboards with healthy food choices so that when the urge to snack strikes, the right foods are within easy reach.
  • Indulge your sweet tooth at a restaurant.
    Don't allow a half-gallon of ice cream shelf space in your freezer. Instead, head out to the ice cream parlor when you're in the mood for a sundae. Doing this safeguards against going back for another scoop, or worse, another bowl later on.
  • Drink plenty of water.
    If you have the urge to snack, drink a glass of water first. It will help fill you up.  You will eat less and also beat cravings to smoke.
  • Think 80/20.
    If 80% of the meals and snacks you eat on a given day are healthy and in the right portions, you can allow yourself a few treats with the other 20% without throwing your diet out of whack.
  • Eat more often.
    Try eating 5 or 6 small meals throughout your day. The urge to snack is intense early on in cessation, so snack-size meals may suit your needs perfectly. And the good news is, small meals every few hours could give your metabolism a boost. Just watch your calories and keep the total for the day within the correct range for your body.
  • Go for a walk.
    Exercise will help you avoid weight gain. As little a half hour walk a day can be enough to help you keep your weight stable, as long as you're eating well too. And exercise improves mood too, a nice fringe benefit.
  • Distract yourself.
    Boredom is a big trigger for smoking and for eating. Make an abrupt change in what you're doing and you can distract yourself away from mindless snacking.
  • Find some support.
    Our smoking cessation forum is a supportive community of people who are working to quit smoking. Stop in and browse the message board of this active group as a guest, or register (free) and join the discussion.

Don't Romance the Cigarette

Early smoking cessation is an awkward, uncomfortable state for most of us. Add weight gain into the equation and we're ripe for a bad case of junkie thinking.

Don't be tempted to return to smoking as a means to control your weight. If you do, you'll learn a hard lesson.  You'll be a smoker who needs to quit and lose weight, because the pounds won't magically melt away because you're smoking again. 

Dig your heels in and focus on losing your addiction to nicotine first and the weight second. Once you're comfortable in your nonsmoking skin, you'll be better equipped to apply your time and energy toward losing weight successfully.

And speaking of success, there is absolutely nothing better for a person's self-confidence and ability to tackle challenges effectively than succeeding at smoking cessation.

Smoking kills, plain and simple.

Do what you need to do to boot this addiction out of your life now. If that means you gain a few pounds in the process, so be it. Weight can always be lost later, but your precious and irreplaceable health cannot.

Source:

U.S. National Library of Medicine. Weight Gain After Quitting Smoking: What to Do. Reviewed September 22, 2014.

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