When I quit smoking more than a decade ago, I knew it was the right step for my long-term health, but in the short term, it certainly didn’t feel like it. Not only did I experience the “quitter’s flu” of nicotine withdrawal headaches and fatigue, but I also began gaining weight quickly. In fact, by the time I really started to do something about stopping that sudden increase, I was averaging a gain of 2–3 pounds per week.
Once I hit three months — and 35 pounds — I actually considered starting to smoke again since I was so miserable from the shift. Instead, I made some major changes to my eating choices and exercise routines — and, naturally, tracked it all through MyFitnessPal — and that helped me get back to my pre-quitting weight, but it took six months to get there.
As it turns out, I certainly wasn’t alone in struggling with weight gain after giving up smoking. Here are some reasons why it happens and what you can do to get back on track:
When you smoke, your metabolic rate increases slightly, so when you quit, that rate goes back down. If your calories go up at the same time, the result is often weight gain.
Even though your metabolism for weight control might be “better” when smoking, that doesn’t mean you’ll have good metabolic health overall, says Joana Araujo, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina.
“Although there are several factors that are vital for metabolic health, top ones include blood pressure, cholesterol and blood glucose,” she says. “Smoking negatively affects all of these, as well as impairs your cardiovascular and respiratory systems, which further impacts your metabolic health.”
For example, your heart rate increases when you smoke, which is one of the reasons heart disease is the most common cause of smoking-related death.
To compensate for this slowed metabolism, staying on top of your calorie tracking with an app like MyFitnessPal can be very helpful, especially since you may be tempted to snack more as a way to reduce the withdrawal effects. Other top tactics include adding strength training to your routine, ramping up the intensity of aerobic workouts, and meeting your protein goals.
One aspect I noticed the most after quitting was I became hungry in a way I hadn’t been before — cravings for carbs, sugar and starchy foods were particularly strong, so I ended up eating pasta every day, followed by a pint of ice cream. Salad and fresh fruit simply didn’t cut it.
According to Marina Picciotto, PhD, of the Yale University School of Medicine, nicotine binds to receptors in your brain that control appetite and create a signal that communicates being satiated even if you haven’t eaten anything. Basically, the nicotine hijacks your hunger response, which is why many smokers have less appetite just after they smoke, chew or vape.
“Unfortunately, some smokers are reluctant to quit because they’re afraid to gain weight because of this effect,” says Picciotto. “It’s also one of the reasons why people might begin smoking again after quitting, and for some, particularly teenage girls, it may be why they start using nicotine products in the first place.” However, we all know the health benefits of quitting smoking make regulating your appetite worth it.
You don’t have to settle for feeling hungry all the time. There are numerous strategies that can tame the belly growling, such as eating meals on a regular schedule, eating more fiber, including healthy fats, and focusing on protein-rich foods. If you suspect you’re “hungry” just because you’re bored, create a list of distractions that can steer you away from the fridge. For example, go for a walk outside.
Nicotine delivers more than a physical buzz, it creates comfort. Sometimes, that’s the result of habit — for example, reaching for a cigarette when you’re stressed becomes a self-soothing mechanism — but it’s also the effect of the nicotine itself, which has a mood-altering effect, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
That’s one of the reasons people with mental health or substance abuse disorders smoke more than those who don’t struggle with those issues. But this type of emotional disruption while quitting can affect anyone.
Recognizing this effect and addressing it can go a long way toward successfully quitting for good, one study found. In that research, people who engaged in uplifting self-talk at every urge to smoke had more success in staying away from smoking than those who didn’t show themselves more compassion and acknowledgment.
A good start for addressing emotional challenges is to adopt some mindfulness practices, which may be as simple as paying more attention to your surroundings, doing some deep breathing exercises, and creating a “mantra” or saying that makes you feel empowered. For example, whenever you feel the urge to smoke, you could say, “I’m stronger than this,” or take five deep breaths.
Whether you’re quitting smoking or not, preventing weight gain often starts with being aware of what you’re eating and especially the amount of calories you’re taking in — food logging and tracking can help. Exercise can help as well, but food is the best starting point, says Catherine Crow, nutritional therapy practitioner and founder of Butter Nutrition.
“Begin by eating strategically, not trying the latest diet,” she says. “Spend time preparing food yourself, buying food that’s local and seasonal, and focus on nourishment.”
That feeling of self-care through eating healthy foods can not only help you control what you eat, but it also ties into the other major component of quitting smoking, which is a focus on emotional health.
As I discovered quickly, smoking was my source of comfort and stress relief, and it helped keep my moods even. Without it, high-carb and high-sugar foods were the substitutes that slightly worked. Because of that, being mindful about the role tobacco plays in your life can be very helpful, especially because you can start to find non-food ways to help with emotional regulation.
Exercise, in particular, is stellar for this because not only does it assist with your calories-in, calories-out equation, it is also a proven mood enhancer. Personally, I began doing yoga and found it hugely useful because it also improved my breathing — another challenge when you’ve just quit smoking.
Overall, weight gain after smoking can be part of the short-term effects, but if you line up good strategies before you ditch cigarettes, it’s likely you can minimize how many pounds start to creep up on you.