Stopping Weight Gain While Quitting Smoking

Many people who quit smoking gain 10 pounds, but not you.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 23, 2009
3 min read

TK Baltimore (pronounced "Teak"), 34, a Web developer who lives in New York City, smoked for nearly 20 years. She's lost track of how many times she tried to quit. Here, she shares how she quit smoking without weight gain, and how you can do it too.

Like a lot of people who smoke, I didn't have the most healthy lifestyle. A couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with extremely high cholesterol. My doctor told me that he could put me on medication, or I could try seeing if it was lifestyle-related by eating healthier and getting exercise. Considering high cholesterol didn't run in my family and I knew what my lifestyle was like, I decided to try making some healthy changes, and that included quitting smoking.

I got advice from a nutritionist about cleaning up my diet without wanting to die. For example, I added a lot of whole grains to my diet -- brown rice, whole-wheat pasta. And I started sharing the yolks of my eggs with my dog when I made an omelet in the morning. But the biggest part was exercise. I had been completely sedentary -- the only exercise I got was a ski trip once a year and walking around Manhattan. So I started going to the gym three or four days a week, doing weight training and cardio.

Another thing that was important: When I quit smoking, I avoided the bars, and I wasn't getting all those calories from alcohol! I actually managed to lose about 20 pounds while quitting smoking, and I've kept most of it off. I have to be honest, though. … I've definitely backslid with stopping smoking. It's hard, because my husband smokes too. We quit together, and when he started again, it was hard for me not to. It's really an ongoing process.

On average, people who quit smoking gain about 10 pounds, according to Trina Ita, Quitline counseling supervisor for the American Cancer Society.

Weight gain while quitting smoking can be traced to two factors.

  • First, you eat more. If you're not smoking, you want to put something else in your mouth. Since you now can smell and taste food better, things like sugary and sweet foods become very attractive.
  • The second reason is metabolic. "Nicotine increases the metabolic rate. When you stop smoking, your metabolic rate decreases," explains Lirio Covey, PhD, director of the smoking cessation program at Columbia University in New York.

One of the best ways to avoid weight gain while quitting smoking is just what Baltimore did: amp up the exercise. "When you stop smoking, you can breathe better, walk better, run better," says Covey. "Take advantage of that!"

Exercise also has the additional benefit of helping you burn off the nervous energy many smokers struggle with when they quit. Studies show that people who exercise while quitting smoking gain much less weight, and are twice as likely to kick the habit as those who don't.

Besides eating a healthy diet and exercising more, here are some other tips to help you avoid gaining the "kick the habit 10":

  • Plan ahead. "Some of my patients, when they know they're going to quit, start improving their diet and exercise ahead of time so that they're not already at a really high weight when they quit," says Covey.
  • Find something else to do with your mouth. Keep sugar-free hard candies, gum (nicotine gum if you like), or Tic Tacs in your car, purse, and coat. Crunching on a carrot when you feel like a cigarette or a snack will keep your mouth busy without adding calories.
  • If you're keeping a "smoking journal," track your cravings to eat just as you track your cravings to smoke, and identify replacement activities (a walk, a run, a video game, playing with the dog).
  • Drink plenty of water. Being hydrated will boost your metabolism, while at the same time helping you beat back the craving to smoke. Carry a water bottle with you throughout the day.