Fear of weight gain can prevent even highly motivated women from quitting smoking. Fortunately, there are ways to kick the cigarette habit without permanently putting on weight.
Smoking and Weight Gain: Breaking the Connection
Women definitely worry about weight gain, and often put that fear ahead of the benefits of quitting smoking. A recent study of smokers attempting to quit showed that after gaining five pounds or more, female study participants were likely to reach for their cigarettes again.
Wanting to avoid weight gain can be a real barrier and may contribute to the fact that many people try to quit smoking up to six times before they kick the habit for good. The study’s authors noted that, in general, nicotine withdrawal symptoms, including depressed mood and nervousness, tend to affect more women than men. These mood-related symptoms may heighten frustration for female smokers if they also gain weight while trying to quit smoking.
However, the magical weight-loss power people attribute to smoking might be just an illusion. Studies in animals and humans have shown that though nicotine may curb your appetite, it doesn’t necessarily lead to lasting weight loss. And there’s also good news to bust the perception that quitting causes huge weight gain: A study of 385 men and women in a smoking cessation program showed that people who worry a lot about gaining weight as a result of quitting smoking often predict they will gain more weight than they actually do.
Smoking and Weight Gain: How to Stop Both
Dietitian Donna L. Weihofen, RD, MS, health nutritionist at the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Wisc., advises smokers who are trying to give up cigarettes to focus their efforts on quitting. She says you should avoid becoming fixated on the possibility of gaining weight, especially when you compare a lifetime of health advantages to the time you might need to spend on a diet.
“Smokers do have a problem when they give up smoking — they look for a substitute. Somehow they crave food. However, it is much healthier to give up smoking and put on a few pounds,” she says. “You can lose it afterward.”
Here are strategies to help you quit while minimizing any weight gain:
- Do what you need to do to quit smoking. Many people are helped by nicotine patches, gum, lozenges, or other medicinal approaches. Discuss your options with your doctor.
- Prioritize your goals. Remember the data that showed the fear of gaining weight is often worse than the reality. Even if you do gain a few pounds, keep it in perspective and continue to work toward kicking your smoking habit first, then turn your focus to dieting.
- Practice healthy weight management behaviors. Be sure to stick to a nutritious, well-balanced diet of fresh foods that keep you feeling full, and remain (or get!) physically active.
- Seek social support. Studies show that people are more successful with both dieting and quitting smoking if they seek out others for motivation and moral support.
- Be discriminating about what you eat or drink. “Just because it tastes good does not mean you swallow it!” advises former smoker and successful dieter Charla Hodges of Houston, Texas. Hodges relied on her weight management standbys — drinking lots of water and being physically active — to get through the rough patches when she was quitting cigarettes.
- Get professional help. Weihofen recommends working closely with a dietitian or a nutritionist if you are very concerned about weight gain during smoking cessation. The objective advice of a trained professional will help you stay on track, and you’ll be able to get individualized ideas about healthy alternatives to the snacks you might crave — for example, substituting a light, fruity yogurt for a cookie.
If you are a smoker, one of the most important things you can do to protect your health is to quit. And know that you probably won’t gain as much weight as you suspect, especially if you eat a well-balanced diet and get plenty of exercise as you work on quitting. Before you know it, you’ll be nicotine-free and feeling better than ever.