DEAR DOCTOR K:
I want to quit smoking, but I’m worried about gaining weight. Is it possible to quit smoking without packing on the pounds?
Smokers do tend to gain some weight when they quit. Why? Nicotine reduces appetite and revs up metabolism (the rate at which the body burns food). Breaking free of nicotine allows appetite to come back and also slows metabolism. In addition, many people substitute food for cigarettes when they quit.
By definition, an unhealthy weight is not good for your health. But quitting smoking is good for a person’s health. So the question is: How do the health benefits of quitting smoking compare to the health risks of gaining weight after quitting? Based on studies of hundreds of thousands of people, that question has been answered: Weight gained from quitting smoking does not pose nearly as serious a threat to health as smoking does.
Quitting smoking, for example, lowers your risk of heart disease, stroke and other blood vessel disease despite any subsequent weight gain. The same reduction in risk holds true for people with diabetes. That’s surprising, given that gaining weight can worsen diabetes, which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease on its own.
Of course, your risk of heart disease and stroke is reduced even more if you quit smoking and don’t gain weight. But the point is that you still benefit from quitting, even if you gain weight.
On average, people gain about five to 10 pounds in the six months after they quit smoking. But what happens over the 10 years after that? To answer this question, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine used data gathered from the long-running National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). They looked at the amount of weight gained over 10 years. Smokers who quit gained an average of 18 pounds over 10 years. Smokers who continued to smoke also gained weight over the long term an average of eight pounds over 10 years. So, over 10 years, the quitters gained 10 more pounds than those who continued to smoke. In other words, most of the weight gain in quitters occurred in the first year. And even those who continued to smoke gained weight.
If you’re a smoker and want to quit, you might want to have a plan to keep potential weight gain in check. For example:
- Start to exercise before you quit smoking. Walking is a great way to stay active, lose weight and distract your mind from cigarette cravings.
- If you are overweight already, change your diet now to eat healthier and cut down on total daily calories.
- Carry a water bottle with you and take a sip when you feel hungry or have the urge to smoke.
- Pack healthy, low-calorie snacks that will satisfy the oral urge to smoke or snack. Baby carrots, celery sticks and grapes are all good choices.
In sum, the benefits of quitting smoking outweigh the risks of gaining weight following quitting. Don’t let a fear of weight gain stop you from quitting.