A fairly common experience when quitting smoking is coming to the realization that clothes are fitting tighter and the pounds are adding on. The dreaded weight gain associated with quitting smoking is often the cause cited in a smoking relapse, and discourages many smokers from attempting to quit in the first place.
Though weight gain may happen (average 5-10 lbs) it's not unavoidable. Understanding the reasons for the related weight gain, along with integrating diet and exercise as part of the quit plan, helps prevent and reverse weight gain after quitting smoking.
Reasons For Weight Gain
Nicotine is a stimulant and suppresses appetite along with slightly increasing metabolism. Many times smokers will light up to curb their hunger, delay a meal, or manage their weight. Some smokers replace a meal with a cigarette and beverage, which lowers calorie intake. Smoking dulls the taste buds and sense of smell, so when smokers quit they often find they are hungrier, that food tastes and smells better, and that they don't want to skip a meal. This adds up to a body taking in more calories while lowering the speed at which they are burned.
Nicotine withdrawal can cause food cravings. Foods containing sugar, fat, and salt curb the craving for nicotine. Usually these foods are processed and high in calories, carbohydrates, and fat. This type of food is often considered a comfort food. Smokers may find that after quitting they are reaching emotionally for comfort food the same way they reached for cigarettes, rewarding themselves with food to feel better when they are hungry, angry, lonely or tired.
- The physical act of smoking a cigarette requires approximately ten inhalations. That's about two hundred times a day (1 pack/day) a smoker puts a cigarette to their mouth and inhales. Many quitters miss the oral satisfaction of smoking and replace the cigarettes with food. This oral substitution can add up to a lot of nibbling on snacks and treats.
- Sleep loss due to withdrawal causes tiredness that reduces the motivation to get up and out to exercise. Sleep deprivation is stressful on the body and increases hunger-stimulating stress hormones which boost appetites.
Avoiding Weight Gain - Include Diet and Exercise in the Quit Plan
A healthy diet includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and foods low in fat and cholesterol. Don't overeat. Even too much healthy food will cause weight gain. It's the calories that matter in weight gain and loss. Calories are calories, whether they are nutrient rich or empty.
Eat slowly and enjoy the food. Practice mindful eating. Put the fork down between bites and become aware of the taste, smell, touch and texture of the food being eaten. It may take 20 minutes for your stomach to signal your brain that you are full. Then it's time to stop eating.
Drink lots of water. Water hydrates, fills your stomach and reduces hunger -- along with any cravings to smoke. Placing ice in the water increases metabolism and burns calories.
Don't wait until you are very hungry to eat. At that point you may give in to fast food or poor food choices. Be prepared and have a healthy snack on hand, such as carrot or celery sticks, an apple, pretzel or air-popped popcorn.
Watch your portion size. Sight is also involved in determining when we feel full, so use smaller plates and drinking glasses; if the plate is viewed as full the tummy feels full. Fill half the plate with fruits and vegetables, a quarter with whole grains, and a quarter with lean protein. Don't deny yourself a treat. Variety is the spice of life.
Have a plan on how to cope with food cravings when they hit. Food cravings are associated with weight gain. Food cravings are not from being hungry. A craving is a strong desire to obtain a reward -- in this case eating food for the pleasure of it. If you are reaching for food when stressed, lonely, sad, etc., address the issue and consciously replace the desired food with something else. Examples: When lonely, call a friend. When stressed, meditate. If bored, go for a walk; it helps to distract from the craving and burns calories.
Include physical activity in your daily schedule. Physical exercise not only boosts metabolism, improves sleep quality, and burns calories, but also releases 'feel good' endorphins in the brain that help reduce stress, depression, and cravings to smoke. Of course, overall health, including medical issues, needs to be considered before starting any new exercise program, so get a physician's nod of approval.
Choose physical exercises that you enjoy and look forward to doing. If you like to run, go jogging. If dancing is your thing, join an aerobic dance class. If you find walking 30 minutes a day fits better in your schedule, then go for it. It's the consistency and regularity that matters.
Little things add up. Increase your daily steps by parking the car further away from your destination. Take a walk during your lunch or dinner break at work. Use the stairs instead of the escalator or elevator.
Focusing on these realistic diet and exercise changes when quitting smoking helps to avoid the pitfall of gaining excess weight. Quitting smoking, being physically fit, and maintaining your weight by eating healthfully promotes self-care and feelings of well being. Keep in mind that the health benefits of quitting always outweigh any health risks associated with weight gain.
Keep Going and Keep the Quit!