Worried about gaining weight if you quit smoking? You’re in good company. Fear of weight gain is one of the biggest reasons smokers are reluctant to quit. For those smokers who do decide it’s time to free themselves from nicotine, worrying about weight gain can add to the stress of quitting, increasing the risk of relapse.
But quitting doesn’t have to lead to weight gain. And even if you do gain a little weight, you can lose it later. It’s important to remember, too, that the health benefits of quitting far outweigh any risks associated with weight gain.
“Some people do gain weight after quitting, but certainly not everyone,” says Scott McIntosh, PhD, associate professor of community and preventive medicine at the University of Rochester in New York and director of the Greater Rochester Area Tobacco Cessation Center.
How to Quit Smoking Without Gaining Weight
McIntosh estimates that only about one-third of quitters gain weight. The average weight gain is about five to eight pounds. “Obviously that’s something many people would rather not see. But by quitting smoking, you can add years to your life — and years of being in good health rather than sick or disabled. Those extra pounds are a small price to pay.”
Here are eight ways to minimize weight gain when you’re trying to kick the habit.
1. Avoid crash diets.
“Quitting is tough enough without adding the stress of extreme dieting,” says Steven Schroeder, MD, director of the Smoking Cessation Leadership Center at the University of California, San Francisco. Don’t radically change the way you eat. Instead, wherever practical, make a few small, easy-to-do adjustments. Most of the recommended adjustments are familiar to anyone who has tried to lose weight or keep it off. The same rules apply, after all. People gain weight when they eat more calories than they expend.
2. Keep low-calorie treats handy to pop in your mouth.
Part of the craving for a cigarette comes from the habit of putting something in your mouth. If you reach for sugary or high-fat sweets and snacks instead of a cigarette, calories can add up fast. Make sure you have plenty of low-calorie or zero-calorie alternatives with you at all times, such as sugar-free candies, carrots or celery sticks, slices of sweet pepper, or low-calorie chewing gum. Research shows thatvery few of us can go on saying “no” to things we want, especially when we’re hungry. Willpower, in other words, is a limited resource. Having all-you-can-eat foods handy will help ensure that you don’t tax your willpower when strong cravings occur.
3. Drink plenty of water.
Drinking water before and during a meal helps keep you hydrated and can make you feel full on fewer calories. Drinking water satisfies the craving for having something to put in your mouth instead of a cigarette. One recent study showed that sipping cold water through a straw triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good hormone in the brain that may counteract stress.
4. Choose high-fiber foods.
Many studies show that fiber helps blunt appetite and helps make people feel fuller longer after a meal. Insoluble fiber passes through the digestive tract without being broken down. Soluble fiber is slowly broken down in the small intestines, where it helps prevent cholesterol from being absorbed. High-fiber foods include whole grains, beans, and vegetables.
5. Fill your plate with nutrient-dense foods.
While you’re watching calories, it’s important to make sure you’re getting all the nutrients you need. In fact, some researchers think nutrient deficiencies may be one reason people overeat. While you’re quitting, choose foods that are nutrient-dense, such as vegetables, nuts, beans, and whole grains. Avoid foods that pack a lot of calories and not much else, such as sugary treats. Switch from sugary beverages to artificially-sweetened drinks — or better yet, drink sparkling water with a squeeze of lemon or lime.
6. Switch to smaller plates and glasses.
The bigger the plate, the more we tend to pile onto it, research findings show. And since we typically eat what we serve ourselves, we often overeat without even thinking about it. Research suggests that people using smaller plates and glasses east less and consume fewer calories.
7. Exercise, exercise, exercise.
Physical activity burns calories and offers a welcome distraction from cravings both for nicotine and for food. Exercise also eases stress, which is important while you’re trying to quit smoking. You can ramp up the number of calories you burn either by exercising at greater intensity or increasing the amount of time you exercise. Exercise isn’t a panacea. Even people who are physically active may gain some weight during the first few months of quitting. But evidence suggests it can help people who gain weight eventually lose it and then maintain a healthy weight.
8. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation aids.
If you’ve been reluctant to quit because you’re worried about gaining weight, talk to your doctor. Studies show that the smoking cessation drug such as Zyban (bupropion), available by prescription, helps many people quit without gaining weight. Other treatments, including nicotine replacement therapies such as nicotine patches, may also help reduce weight gain. Your doctor can also refer you to a smoking cessation counseling program that will help improve your odds of quitting without gaining excessive amounts of weight.