If you're a smoker, the healthiest resolution you can make is to kick the habit. But kicking butts often goes hand in hand with weight gain. Is it possible to be both slimmer and smoke-free in the New Year?
It can be done, experts say -- if you go about it the right way.
First, consider this: Although you are likely to gain a little weight when you stop smoking, it probably won't be as much as you fear.
"Cigarettes activate your metabolism," says Cynthia Purcell, MS, a nutritionist and smoking cessation therapist in the smoking cessation program at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. "You burn about 250 calories if you smoke a pack a day. So when you quit and your metabolism slows down, your body has these extra calories it has to deal with, and many people gain weight."
Most people gain about two pounds during the first couple of weeks after quitting, Purcell says.
"People who quit tend to think, 'It's only been two weeks and I've gained two pounds. What's it going to be like in two months?' And they go back to smoking to avoid the weight gain," Purcell tells WebMD.
"If they'd just stick with it, they'd realize it's not going to be a pound or two every week, and their metabolism will even out. On average, most people only gain between 5-7 pounds in total after quitting."
And when you consider the benefits of a smoke-free lifestyle -- both inside and out -- those few extra pounds may not mean as much.
Not only that, but your skin clears up and starts to look smoother, your fingernails stop looking yellow, your breath improves, and your teeth can be bright again. All these less-obvious benefits of smoking will have you looking great, even if you put on a few, says Purcell.
So you're ready to quit, and you want to minimize the weight gain. Is it cold-turkey time, or is it time to strategize and plan?
The Right Approach
"There are people who quit by making up their mind and throwing away their cigarettes, but research says a systematic approach is more effective," says Edwin Fisher, PhD, co-author of the American Lung Association's How to Quit Smoking Without Gaining Weight (to be published in 2004).
First, plan ahead, says Fisher. Set a quit date, whether it's the first of the year or a couple of weeks later. Prepare for it by setting aside some extra time to start a regular physical activity, like walking. And do your best to bypass the buffets and start eating healthier.
"When you are preparing to quit, improving the healthiness of your diet will help you minimize weight gain," says Fisher, who is also a professor of psychology, medicine, and pediatrics at Washington University in St. Louis. "Keep in mind it's not so much calorie restriction, but more so a healthy diet."
Next, start to pinpoint what situations will bring on an urge to smoke, explains Fisher, so you'll be prepared to deal with them.
"The urge for a cigarette tends to be the most pronounced the first few days after quitting for most people," says Fisher. "After the fifth day, the number of urges starts to decrease."
While it varies from person to person, the urges will typically continue -- although less frequently -- for several weeks or even months, says Fisher. But they are still as annoying as when you first quit, Fisher says, so be prepared to tackle them head-on.
When it comes time to quit, here are a few tips to minimize cigarette cravings and weight gain:
- Drink more water. Shoot for eight, 8-ounce glasses of water a day, says Purcell. This will keep you hydrated, help you feel full, and give you something to do with your hands.
- Make smart choices when snacking. "Quitting smoking will increase your snacking," says Purcell. While you should avoid substituting food for cigarettes, you should plan healthy snacks, like cut-up veggies, fruit, or almonds or pistachios (in limited amounts.) Try to avoid sugar and unhealthy starches. If you feel you must have sweets, go for sugarless and fat-free ones, suggests Purcell. But keep in mind that fat-free snacks often have just as many calories due to the added sugar.
- When a craving for a cigarette strikes, be prepared. "If you want certain snacks around, make sure they're handy and healthy," says Purcell. "Have water around. Take a walk, have a soda. Think these things through so when an urge hits, you are prepared. It's all about careful planning."
- Keep up the physical activity and the healthy eating. This will help you quit smoking as well as trim your waistline, explains Purcell.
- Use the tried-and-true method of successful quitters. "Statistics show the best success is a combination of group or support therapy, and using some sort of nicotine replacement, like the gum or the patch," says Purcell. "And almost every type of insurance will cover at least part of the cost."
- Be ready for challenges. "You have to have the right mindset and be prepared for challenging times," says Purcell. "If you can get through the first two weeks, chances are you'll make it."
- Most importantly, even if the needle on the scale starts to creep upward, don't reach for that cigarette! "Just stick it out and let your metabolism even off," says Purcell. "It's only temporary, and you can address the weight later after you've quit."
Beyond just not trying to gain weight, how likely are you to succeed at losing weight at the same time you quit smoking? It's all about knowing your own limitations, the experts say.
"I think that people are their own best judges," says Fisher. "To do both at once is taking on a double challenge, and I encourage people to recognize the importance of success. If you can quit smoking in January and lose weight in April or May when you can get outside and exercise, I think that's fine. But if you want to do both at once, and you feel juiced about doing that, then go for it, but don't be heroic and end up with failure."
Motivation and a good support system are key.
"It's about sticking with it, not giving into that first cigarette urge, using your support system -- whether it's talking to co-workers or friends or family or a support group, drinking plenty of water, eating healthy, being active, and planning ahead so you can handle cravings," says Purcell. "Just stick with it and ride it out."
Originally published Jan. 2, 2004
Medically updated Dec. 21, 2006.