Expert Q&A

Smoking cessation and weight gain: How to quit smoking and avoid gaining weight?

I want to quit smoking, but am afraid I’ll gain weight. What should I do?

-Jasmine from Pennsylvania

It’s terrific that you want to quit smoking because smoking is the worst thing you can do for your health. Maybe you have friends who have quit or tried to quit and have gained a lot of weight. If you are already a bit overweight, naturally you don’t want to make it worse. You should know that for your health, smoking is many times worse than being overweight. On the other hand, if you are normal weight, you probably want to stay that way. 

If you change nothing in your daily routine except quitting smoking, you will very likely gain about 4 pounds from metabolism changes. However, without eating any more, that 4 pounds typically goes away by itself in a year. On the other hand, if you eat more, you will probably gain even more and keep it. 

After quitting smoking, you have to deal with the habit of putting something into your mouth. Add to that the frequent reminders from your brain’s pleasure center that you are not providing nicotine to it on a regular basis and you might seek to do something that replaces the nicotine. When someone with a nicotine addiction smokes, the nicotine goes to the area of the brain called the limbic system. There, it stimulates nerves to produce a chemical called dopamine which makes us sense pleasure. For many of us, eating does the same thing, particularly carbohydrates like bread and pasta or sugars. So we learn to eat to get the dopamine rather than smoke. Consequently we gain weight, slowly but surely. 

Studies show this urge for dopamine lasts about a minute. If you can do something other than think about smoking or eating, you can learn to ignore the desire. Eventually the urge gets weaker and stops bothering you. If you give in to it, you will always want more food, just as smoking even a little makes you want it more. 

Remember to eat smaller meals than usual, and include good quality protein so you won’t feel hungry. Keep sweets to a tiny amount. Eat dense fruits like pears and apples rather than sweet fruits like bananas and grapes. Stick with whole grains rather than white flour and white rice, which tend to make you crave more. 

Exercise not only burns more calories, it helps you relax and can be a distraction when you want food or cigarettes. Rather than thinking of yourself as quitting smoking and being on a diet, view your new habits as fulfilling a healthy lifestyle and it will seem easier. Eventually, you’ll wonder why you ever smoked or overate because it will seem natural to live well.

For more information on the health and exercise benefits of quitting smoking see the following article from TheDietChannel: Why Smoking & Exercise Don't Mix.

John Messmer, MD
Contributing Expert

Have a question for our Experts? Send it in!