Give yourself a round of applause: you have quit smoking and taken steps to better health. One of the biggest concerns of smokers who quit is weight gain, but your first priority should remain stopping smoking. After that, you can continue on your path to healthy living by reaching and maintaining a healthy weight.
We all know smoking is the number one risk factor for lung cancer, which is the leading cause of cancer death in the U.S. Smoking is also a risk factor for cancer of the mouth, nose, throat, larynx, esophagus, liver, bladder, kidney, pancreas, colon, rectum, cervix, stomach, blood, and bone marrow. Smoking increases the risk for other lung disease as well as heart disease. Pregnant women who smoke risk their babies being born prematurely, having delivery complications, and babies with low birth weight. When you quit smoking, health benefits include a reduced risk of these conditions.
It's not guaranteed you will gain weight when you quit smoking. For those who do gain weight, the weight gain after quitting smoking is only about 6 to 8 pounds. Only about 10% of people who quit smoking gain 30 pounds or more.
There are several reasons you may gain weight when you stop smoking, including:
- Hunger. When you first quit you may feel hungrier than you used to. This feeling will usually disappear after several weeks.
- More snacking and drinking alcohol. Many people turn to snacks or alcohol when they quit smoking.
- Calorie burn returns to normal levels.When you quit smoking, metabolism returns to normal. When you smoke, your body burns calories faster because your heart rate rises. However, this is a temporary effect that is damaging to your heart. When you quit smoking, this short-term calorie burn goes away and you will burn slightly fewer calories.
It's always a good idea to exercise and eat a balanced and healthy diet. However, when you are quitting smoking, focus on that goal first and foremost. Once you are smoke-free, you can concentrate on weight loss efforts. The following slides discuss some ways to prevent weight gain when you quit smoking.
Don't dwell on weight gain, if any. Quitting smoking will improve your health in so many ways. When you quit smoking, the health benefits are numerous. You will notice:
Regular exercise is one of the best ways to prevent large weight gain when you stop smoking. Exercise also gives you energy and can act as a mood-booster. Once you quit smoking, you will likely find you can breathe more easily during physical activity.
Aim for about 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise nearly every day to prevent weight gain. It doesn't have to be all at once – you can break it up into shorter sessions. You may need more than 30 minutes of exercise daily to lose weight.
There are ways you can incorporate physical activity into each day without it being a long exercise session. Try these simple steps:
- Take a walk during lunch breaks or after dinner.
- If you take the bus or subway, get off one stop early and walk home (if you live where it is safe to do so).
- Park your car further away from the entrance to stores so you can walk.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Sign up for fun classes such as dance or yoga.
- Ask a friend to join you when you exercise.
In addition to moving more, you must watch what you eat to avoid weight gain when you quit smoking. Many former smokers turn to high-fat, high-sugar snacks or alcoholic beverages when they quit. Don't fall into that trap of replacing one bad habit with another. Follow these steps to make healthier choices about what you eat and drink:
- Eat frequent, smaller meals.
- Eat enough to satisfy you, but don't overindulge.
- Eat slowly to pick up on your body's signals that you are full – it usually takes about 20 minutes from the first bite for your body to start registering you have had enough.
- Choose healthy snacks such as fruit, air-popped popcorn, or fat-free yogurt.
- If you want an occasional treat, have a small serving.
- Choose beverages that are sugar free and fat free instead of alcohol or soda.
In some cases, medications may help you quit smoking, and also to gain less weight when you do so. Don't hesitate to rely on quit smoking products like nicotine patches when you need them. Talk to your doctor about the medications available, including nicotine replacement therapy (the patch, gum, nasal spray, and inhaler), or antidepressant medication. Nicotine patches and gum are usually available without a prescription. If you are unsure about taking such medications, discuss their use with your doctor before using them.
It may be easier to prevent weight gain or to lose weight with some extra help from a professional. Look into seeing a registered dietitian, nutritionist, or personal trainer to help with your diet and exercise goals to avoid weight gain.
Most of us don't like to gain weight, but the overall benefits of quitting smoking far outweigh the risks of a few extra pounds. When you quit smoking, you lower your risk for numerous types of cancers, and other illness such as heart disease. When you embark on a smoking cessation program focus first on quitting. Once you have quit for good, then turn your energy to becoming physically active and eating a balanced diet to reach your desired weight. The quit smoking benefits greatly outweigh the potential weight gain from quitting.
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- American Heart Association: "Staying Quit: How to Stop Smoking for Good."
- American Heart Association: "How Can I Avoid Weight Gain When I Stop Smoking?."
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): What Are the Risk Factors for Lung Cancer?
- UpToDate: "Benefits and Risks of Smoking Cessation."