Smoking: Drop the Habit Without Picking Up Weight

Proven strategies for quitting smoking -- including diet and exercise -- can keep you smoke-free and prevent weight gain.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on July 22, 2008
8 min read

Quitting smoking and weight gain have long been linked. But when you kick the butts, is it inevitable yours will expand?

True, four out of five people who smoke gain some weight. On average, people who quit gain between 4-10 pounds. Most weight tends to be gained in the first six months after quitting.

The fear of weight gain is so great many smokers cite it as the reason they continue to puff away. Although the benefits of quitting far outweigh the possibility of extra pounds, few want to swap nicotine addiction for food addiction.

"I was an avid smoker for over 16 years -- at least a pack a day, the traditional coffee and cigarette Type-A personality -- who feared gaining weight if I quit," says Dawn Marie Fichera, director of special projects for a communications firm. In September, she celebrates two years being smoke-free. "I genuinely enjoyed it: the taste, the feel of it in my mouth, the sweet sting of nicotine as it traveled through my veins."

But smokers need not fear quitting will lead to weight gain, experts say. By combining diet and lifestyle changes with a smoking cessation program, you can throw away the cigarette pack and avoid packing on extra pounds.

Why do smokers seem to gain weight when they quit?

There are a couple of reasons. First, nicotine is known to raise metabolic rate. It increases the amount of calories used; a heavy smoker may burn as many as 200 calories daily. Nicotine also serves as an appetite suppressant; after quitting it is normal for your appetite to increase.

Many people report that when they quit smoking their ability to taste and smell is enhanced, a temptation that can lead to increased eating. It is common for people to say that before quitting they never had much of a sweet tooth but now they find that they eat sweet foods. Studies show that people want more sweet and fatty foods after quitting.

Finally, smoking often provides a socially soothing activity for shy or anxious people. When the urge to light up hits, foods -- especially fattening, salty, or sweet snacks -- become a substitute for the physical and emotional comfort smoking provides.

Studies have shown that women are more likely to return to smoking as a way to avoid weight gain after quitting. The Miriam Hospital in Providence, R.I., is conducting a female-specific research study that focuses on innovative ways to quit smoking, including exercise.

Launched in 2007, "Commit to Quit" is a 12-week, NIH-funded group program and smoking cessation research study led by researchers at the hospital's Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine at Brown University. Designed by women for women, it provides information on how to prepare to stop smoking; ways to handle nicotine withdrawal; the skills needed to quit; and the tools to stay smoke-free. Each participant receives a free, three-month membership to one of three local YMCA branches. (Researchers hope to roll out the program to YMCA communities nationwide).

The women are divided into two groups: an exercise group and a health and wellness group. Participants meet with staff on a weekly basis at the YMCA. Those in the exercise group are given a regimented exercise program to follow, and those in the health and wellness group are taught about lifestyle changes, healthy eating strategies and stress management. Both strategies have proven to be effective in helping with smoking cessation.

Bess Marcus, PhD, director of the Centers for Behavioral and Preventive Medicine, has been running smoking cessation programs for 20 years. She says most people have to go through several attempts to successfully kick nicotine and most will gain some weight as a result. She counsels program participants to "think of quitting smoking as a lifestyle change. Women often set themselves up negatively. A slip doesn't have to become a relapse and a relapse doesn't have to become a collapse. [Women need to] give themselves permission while working at the process to reframe it as a learning experience instead of being so hard on themselves."

Administrative worker Liz Sandberg of Providence smoked a pack a day for three decades. A graduate of Commit to Quit, she celebrated her one-year smoke-free anniversary July 19.

Her motivation for quitting was financial. "I was spending $3,000 a year on cigarettes. I thought, 'This is crazy.'" A nagging cough was a secondary concern, though she told herself, "It wasn't a smoker's cough."

She says the accountability of the group is key to ensuring that participants stick with the program. As for the all-female dynamic? "It removes the distraction; the focus is on quitting. I can't prove it, but I think men and women smoke for different reasons."

Friends, family, and colleagues are thrilled with Sandberg's success. Her cough is gone, she's been able to quit a part-time job freeing up her weekends, and she's earmarked some of her financial savings to continue her YMCA membership. "I'm training for a triathlon. I went from not being able to do anything for six minutes to exercising 45 minutes to an hour every day."

Quitting smoking requires tremendous resolve, which can falter in the face of a nicotine craving. When you quit smoking your body goes into shock initially; that's why weigh gain is greatest in the first six months of smoking. However, of those who gain weight, most lose weight over time with no special action.

By combining diet and lifestyle changes with a smoking cessation program, you arm yourself with the best one-two punch for beating post-smoking bulge. As Marcus says, "Every time you put out a cigarette is a time to become a nonsmoker."

These are tested techniques and proven strategies that can help you ditch tobacco without gaining weight:

Pick a date. Don't stop today; pick a day a couple of weeks away so you can mentally prepare. "I just woke up one day and said I am not addicted; I just like to smoke, and I can quit this," says ex-smoker Dawn Marie.

Address eating issues first. If you are anorexic or bulimic, seek professional guidance for those issues before you attempt to stop smoking.

Start -- or keep -- exercising. Daily exercise -- 30 minutes, five days a week -- can rev your metabolism and help combat weight gain. Exercising distracts you from cravings and restless energy. "Every time I felt an anxious situation arise, I would walk a few minutes when I normally clutched a cigarette for comfort and release," Fichera says.

Substitute benefits. Susan Gayle, founder of the New Behavior Institute and author of the CD Quit Smoking With No Weight Gain, says it's important to recognize the benefits you get from smoking -- such as relaxation -- and substitute new activities that help you achieve the same benefits.

Watch alcohol intake. You've heard it before, "I only smoke when I drink." For many, drinking is a trigger for smoking -- plus alcohol is high in "empty calories." Limit or eliminate alcohol to reduce the chance of a nicotine relapse.

Trick your mouth and hands. Miss that feel of cigarettes in your mouth? Try flossing with mint-flavored floss, chew on a toothpick or gum, or suck a hard candy. Take up knitting or cards to keep hands busy.

Clear it out. Throw away all tobacco, ashtrays, and lighters so you won't be tempted. Have your home cleaned to rid it of the smell of smoke.

Notice the social stigma. "One day, I looked around and saw beautiful women and handsome men with cigarettes dangling from their mouths and saw how it detracted from their beauty. I really convinced myself that it was a repulsive social habit," Fichera says.

Snack smart. Limiting the amounts of fats is one way to control weight. When cravings hit, it helps to have your refrigerator and pantry stocked with easy-to-grab, low-fat foods like pretzels, carrots, frozen grapes, or popcorn; or high-protein options like sliced turkey, yogurt, and string cheese. Avoid salty, sweet, and processed foods. If you reduce or avoid high-calorie sweet food, weight gain is less likely.

Drink more water. Water or herbal teas -- not soda -- will keep you hydrated, provide a sense of satiety, and flush toxins from your newly clean system. Public relations practitioner Robin Nolan, for example, drank a liter and half of water every morning before she even brushed her teeth.

Enlist support. Tell family and friends you are quitting and ask them to support your decision.

Focus your energy. Quitting smoking is hard enough. This is not the ideal time to remodel the bathroom or start a new job. Conversely, if you want to be smoke-free by your 40th birthday, the event can be a great motivator, says Marcus.

Reduce stress. "Learn self-relaxation techniques," suggests Bruce N. Eimer, licensed clinical psychologist. "This will diminish 'withdrawal symptoms' and the tendency toward emotional eating. Let it pass. Acute cigarette cravings often last just five minutes." Distract yourself by doing laundry, calling a friend, or reading to your child. And know that the severity of cravings decreases over time.

Try hypnosis. "Hypnosis is a highly effective, safe, and quick way to stop smoking," Gayle says.

Check your motivation. Make a list of the reasons why you want to quit and keep it handy. "Do you want to make sure your kids never smoke? Breathe deeply and clearly? Look younger? Remind yourself of your motivation when the thought of a cigarette comes to mind," Gayle says.

Use nicotine replacement therapies. You may have to experiment with several to find the most effective solution.

Employ the power of suggestion. Gayle suggests harnessing the subconscious. "Before falling asleep, write down positive affirmations in the present tense such as 'I am a nonsmoker.' You will find yourself matching your behavior to your new belief."

Tap into self-control. "I think it is critical to tell yourself that you are not addicted and that you have control over smoking," Fichera says. "Smokers feel like they have no control. They are told constantly that they are not in control of their addiction, that their cigarettes control them. They need chewing gums, gels, and other potions to quit. It is simply not true. Convince your mind, have faith in the strength of your own constitution, and you can quit."

Avoid smokers and smoking environments. "Though most establishments are smoke-free, if you live in a state where it isn't mandated, you absolutely must sit in the nonsmoking section to break yourself of the habit of smoking after dinner or during coffee," Fichera says.

Reward yourself. Quitting smoking is a monumental achievement. Treat yourself to a new lipstick, a weekend getaway, sports equipment, or a movie.

Exercise burns calories. Activities such as walking, jogging, or swimming can burn off 200-600 calories per hour, and being active increases your metabolic rate.

Exercise depresses appetite. When you exercise, fat is broken down and released into the bloodstream, which can depress your appetite.