If you’re ready to call yourself an ex-smoker, or you’ve recently given up the habit, you might worry about how quitting will affect your waistline. And experts say it is common for people to put on some weight after they stop smoking.
“Smoking does very slightly increase metabolism, so your metabolism may slow a little just after you quit. That can contribute to weight gain,” says Susan Besser, MD, a primary care doctor with Mercy Personal Physicians at Overlea in Baltimore. You may also be tempted to use food to curb nicotine cravings or to keep your hands busy with snacks instead of cigarettes. That could make the numbers on the scale creep up.
Don’t panic. Most quitters put on fewer than 10 pounds. But there are ways to avoid even a small gain.
After kicking the habit in 2016, Te-Erika Patterson actually lost weight, going from a size 10 to a size 6 in less than a year. “Instead of smoking after I achieved my daily goals, I started walking instead. I ended up losing weight without changing my diet,” says Patterson, 38, who lives in Los Angeles.
Here are some smart, doable strategies that can help you steer clear of cigarettes and weight gain.
Nicotine replacement aids, like gum, patches, and lozenges, make it more likely that you’ll be able to quit for good. Research shows they can help you avoid weight gain, too.
“When you have fewer nicotine cravings, you don’t end up snacking to try to ride out the urge to smoke,” says Laurel Lambert, 38, who used nicotine gum to quit smoking in 2012. Lambert, who lives in Michigan, lost 80 pounds several years before she quit. “I was a little concerned that giving up smoking would cause me to put some weight back on, but I didn’t end up gaining a pound,” she says.
The low-dose antidepressant bupropion also helps prevent weight gain, and may work even better when you use it with nicotine replacement. “Don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor about getting help, even if he or she doesn’t know you smoke or if you’ve tried to quit in the past,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, an assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York City. “Your doctor is there to help you get healthier.”
Stay busy during “smoke breaks.”
“It’s tempting to eat during the times when you used to smoke, but you can end up consuming hundreds of extra calories that way,” Besser says.
She recommends spending “smoke breaks” doing something that keeps your hands, mouth, or both busy. “For example, play a game on your cell phone and chew gum,” she says. Or try Patterson’s approach: Replace going outside for a cigarette with getting out for some exercise. “I wanted to get out of the house, so I walked instead,” she says.
“Ask yourself before you eat anything, ‘Am I actually hungry?’” says Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus. If the answer is yes, “Don’t eat on the run or in front of a screen, even if you’re just having a snack. Sit down, avoid distractions, and pay attention to your food and how fast you’re chewing.”
If you feel tempted to quell the urge to smoke with sugary or fatty food, take a pause. Cravings “usually last no more than 5 to 10 minutes,” Weinandy says. “If you can wait it out by distracting yourself for just a couple of minutes until you’re past the peak, you can avoid making an unhealthy choice.”
Take advantage of your new stamina.
Even if you do eat more after you quit smoking, you may find you can exercise more, too. “Your lung capacity and cardiovascular health immediately begin to improve after you quit,” Besser says. “That makes it much easier to be active,” which is key for staying at a healthy weight.
“I was surprised by how much energy I had after I quit,” Lambert says. “I could breathe better and I was sleeping better, too. I used that extra energy to do more of the things that I enjoyed but that used to be a struggle, like Rollerblading and fishing.”
Celebrate your success.
Giving up cigarettes is a huge accomplishment! Even if you do gain weight, “it’s far healthier to put on a few pounds than to keep smoking,” Besser says.
And remember: You quit smoking by setting a goal, getting support, and finding ways to tackle cravings and other challenges. “Those are the same strategies that can help you reach a healthy weight,” Weinandy says.