By Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD
I have never been a smoker, but many of my clients are current or former smokers. And those who want to kick the habit are often afraid to do so because they’re worried about gaining weight.
In fact, some purposefully took up smoking as a way to lose weight, so they’re convinced that quitting will result in packing on pounds.
A recent study published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice found that 53% of smokers gained weight during previous attempts to quit, with an average weight gain of 8 to 14 pounds within the first year.
The researchers also found that those who were highly concerned about weight were less likely to seek out treatment to help them kick the habit.
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It’s a major barrier, but you should know two things: first, you’d have to gain 100 or more pounds to offset the health benefits of quitting; and second, you can quit successfully without affecting your weight long-term. In fact, research out this year found that on average, quitters don’t experience greater weight gain than never-smokers.
Feeling encouraged? I hope so, because quitting smoking is probably the most important thing you can do for your health, and the benefits are immediate. Just 12 hours after quitting, the carbon monoxide level in your blood drops to normal, within two weeks your circulation and lung function improve, and within one year, your risk of heart disease is slashed to half of what it was when you smoked.
To reap all of these rewards and maintain your weight, quit strategically, using the following five tricks.
Go for volume without overdoing it on calories
Smoking dulls taste buds and diminishes your sense of smell. When these rebound after quitting, you’ll be tasting food in a whole new way, which can make it difficult to keep your portions petite. But, big portions don’t necessarily lead to calorie overkill—if you choose wisely. For example, three and a half cups of oil-popped organic popcorn, about the size of three and a half tennis balls, provides about 140 calories, compared to 160 in just 11 wavy potato chips or 12 tortilla chips.
For high-volume lunch and dinner options, make two cups of field greens (30 calories) the foundation of a meal, dressed with a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar, topped with a serving of lean protein and a small scoop of quinoa. Or, re-proportion meals like a stir-fry or pasta, so most of what’s on your plate is veggies. For example, sauté a quarter cup each of onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, and bell pepper in olive oil with garlic and herbs, toss with a half cup of brown rice pasta or quinoa, and top with a serving of lean protein (like a half cup of white beans, shrimp, or cubed chicken). You’ll get a generously portioned meal (about 3 cups of food!) for well under 500 calories.
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Reach for healthy finger foods
One of the reasons people nibble more after quitting is to mimic the hand-to-mouth motion of smoking. But delivering a lot of calories every time you bring your hand to your mouth (like with candy, pretzels, or chips…) can definitely up the risk of weight gain. Instead, reach for water-rich low-cal veggies, like cucumber slices (16 cals per cup), radishes (19 cals per cup), or grape tomatoes, broccoli florets, and celery sticks (all 30 cals per cup). Pair your veggies with a single-serve hummus, guacamole, or nut butter. You can find each in pre-portioned packages, which are a great idea if you think you might be tempted to keep dipping into a larger container. Other healthy options you can eat with your hands include popcorn, which I’ve already mentioned, as well as fresh fruit, like grapes, berries, and cherries. Citrus fruits that require peeling, like an orange or tangerine, will also keep your hands occupied and allow you to nibble a little bit at a time. Bonus: if you do slip, a study from Duke University found that eating more produce worsens the taste of cigarettes.
Rely on natural appetite suppressants
Smoking suppresses appetite, so quitting can cause a sudden hunger upswing. Fortunately, certain foods and habits can counter the effect. For example, “good” fats like nuts, seeds, olives, and avocado boost satiety and slow stomach emptying, to keep you fuller longer, and delay the return of hunger. To take advantage of this benefit, include some healthy fat at every meal. For example, whip coconut oil or nut butter into a smoothie, sauté or roast veggies in olive oil rather than using nonstick spray, add avocado to salads and omelets, add a dollop of guacamole to soup, and sprinkle sliced or chopped nuts onto stir-frys.
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Rev up your metabolism naturally
Smoking slightly boosts metabolism, so when you quit, maximizing your metabolic rate in healthy, natural ways is a smart strategy for preventing weight gain. Research-backed methods include drinking more water and unsweetened green tea (note: if you can’t stand it unsweetened add a splash of 100% fruit juice), firing up meals with hot peppers (like fresh jalapenos or dried and ground cayenne or chili pepper), slightly increasing your protein portions, and seasoning meals with spices like ginger, black pepper, garlic, and organic citrus zest. Each of these strategies has also been shown to boost satiety, and flavoring meals with metabolic-boosters can keep your taste buds happy, while helping you avoid excess salt and sugar.
Up your activity
In addition to burning calories, exercise also helps curb cigarette cravings and relieve withdrawal symptoms. The trick is finding fun ways to move. A recent study found that when exercise feels like “work” we tend to compensate by seeking out rewards, like adding “I earned it” treats or eating more, which can cancel out the weight loss benefits of working out. To avoid this effect, choose activities that get your heart rate up, but don’t feel like a chore or punishment. Take a dance class, plan a half day hike, or a long bike ride with a friend, try something you’ve never done but have always wanted to do, like rollerblading, indoor rock climbing, or stand-up paddle boarding, or join a volleyball or dodgeball league. Being active in enjoyable ways can help you connect to a whole new smoke-free you, and strengthen the chances that you’ll leave smoking behind forever.
Cynthia Sass is a nutritionist and registered dietitian with master’s degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she’s Health’s contributing nutrition editor, and privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is currently the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the Tampa Bay Rays MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.