Many smokers worry that they'll gain weight if they try to quit. Some even use that concern as a reason not to quit.
"That's a bad idea for many reasons," 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. “Not every smoker who quits gains weight.” Even those who do, he points out, gain on average just 4 to 10 pounds.
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Indeed, for many ex-smokers, putting on a few pounds is healthy. Research shows that smoking actually makes some people unhealthily thin.
Still, if you're worried, remember this: a few simple strategies can help limit weight gain while you kick the habit. Once you have successfully broken the addiction to tobacco, you can work on losing any weight you've gained.
Smoking and Metabolism
Research shows that nicotine from tobacco boosts the body's metabolic rate, increasing the number of calories it burns. Immediately after you smoke a cigarette, your heart rate increases by 10 to 20 beats a minute. The unnatural stimulant effect of nicotine is one reason smoking causes heart disease.
When smokers quit, metabolic rate quickly returns to normal. That's a healthy change. But if ex-smokers keep getting the same number of calories as before, they put on pounds.
Be Smart About What You Put in Your Mouth
When smokers quit, nicotine isn't all they crave. They also discover that they miss the habit of lighting a cigarette and putting it to their mouths. Many smokers turn to food to satisfy this so-called need for "oral gratification."
That's fine if it helps you to quit. But by choosing low-calorie or zero-calorie foods, you can avoid putting on weight. Some smart alternatives include:
Sugar-free hard candies
Celery or carrot sticks
Sliced sweet peppers
Slices of jicama
Experiment to find which alternatives work best for you. Research shows that some smokers who quit experience a sharpened "sweet tooth." They're better off finding foods sweetened with artificial sugar. Some smokers really miss the oral gratification of smoking. They do best finding alternatives that require unwrapping something and chewing or sucking on it, such as sugar-free gum and hard candy.
Another trick is to brush your teeth frequently throughout the day. This can satisfy a passing craving for oral gratification. When your mouth is fresh and clean, you may have less of an urge to smoke.
Avoid Crash Diets
Choose healthy foods that are rich in nutrients and low in calories whenever you can. But experts advise against radical changes in how you eat. “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 San Francisco.