Smoking and Weight Loss: What Happens to Your Weight After You Quit Smoking?

by Marixie Ann Obsioma, MT, undergrad MD on January 22, 2020
Last updated on May 23, 2021

In the United States, Almost 23% of men and 19% of women are smokers. The number of premature deaths linked to smoking exceeds 400, 000 in the year 2000 (1). Are you sold on giving up smoking but worried about the possible weight gain?

woman smoking a cigarette

So here you are, wondering if there is a way to go around it. Unfortunately, based on your observations and researches, saying goodbye to the habit of smoking and weight loss is not written in the stars. You have seen how your friends who manage to successfully end their smoking habit started putting on additional pounds.

Why is this the case? First, let us try to understand how smoking affects your body.

How Does Smoking Affect the Body? 

Cigarette smoking has been considered beneficial when it comes to weight maintenance. In fact, popular advertisements in the 1930s suggest reaching out for a cigarette, instead of sweets (2).

Before you consider this claim laughable, it is marketed that way with good reasons based on solid evidence. Nicotine, found in every cigarette, can increase energy expenditure. In a study conducted on eight healthy smokers, all doing physical exercise of 30 minutes walking on a treadmill, smoking proved to demonstrate a 10% increase in 24-hour energy expenditure (3). The sympathetic nervous system seems to be a mediator in this.

Additionally, smoking has an inverse relationship with body weight possibly because of nicotine’s effect on curb appetite. The influence of nicotine on the hypothalamic melanocortin system of the brain is considered to be responsible for its appetite-suppressing effects (4). Some smokers even state that they smoke for weight control, a more common reason for female adolescents (5).

To sum up, smoking influences metabolic rate by lowering metabolic efficiency and caloric absorption (6). However, some studies are against the idea of nicotine having appetite curbing effects. One study countered this fact by highlighting the acute anorexic effects of nicotine (7). 

Do Non-Smokers Tend to be Heavier than Smokers?

In a survey conducted by the World Health Organization, the body mass index is lower in smokers than in non-smokers. No population showed smokers having a higher BMI than nonsmokers (8). 

However, heavy smokers are considered to be more predisposed to becoming obese compared to nonsmokers, light smokers, and moderate smokers (9). This seems ironic given that the metabolic advantages of nicotine are supposedly heightened in heavy smokers.

Why Does Smoking Cessation Lead to Weight Gain?

Understanding how nicotine affects body weight can clue you in as to why people gain weight upon smoking cessation. When you stop smoking, it is normal to gain five to ten pounds in the first few months. Here are some detailed explanations of why this happens.

1. Metabolism Slows Down

Since nicotine speeds up metabolism, your body will start burning food at a much slower rate when you quit. The metabolism of your body’s glucose gets affected and the breakdown of triglycerides to produce free fatty acids may slow down. Nicotine increases energy consumption and paves the way for weight loss (10). Without it, your body has to adjust to your new metabolism. 

2. Appetite Increases

Nicotine can suppress hunger and exhibit a feeling of fullness. Once your body has been stripped off of nicotine, you might feel hungry. Many people realize that their eating habits have changed after letting go of their old smoking habit. Some consider the intense hunger as a withdrawal symptom, while others consider it as a coping mechanism. Whatever the reason is for the binge-eating, a normal eating pattern will come about eventually.

3. Blood Glucose Level Spikes

Nicotine also interferes with insulin. Therefore, people who quit smoking will experience spikes in their blood glucose levels prompting them to eat more. In fact, people who quit smoking have an increased risk of developing diabetes mellitus type II. The risk is at its highest point during the first two years. After this point, however, it declines and completely disappears after 12 years of quitting (11).

4. Lack of Physical Activity

Nicotine is an addiction. Quitting can make you lazy and lethargic. The lack of energy will have you skipping gym time or neglecting to do psychical activities.  It is a shame because new research supports how exercising can help kick the habit of smoking for good (12). Even a moderate workout can decrease the severity of symptoms associated with nicotine withdrawal. A study conducted on mice that are treated with nicotine and put on either two or 24 hours of wheel running exercise showed a marked decrease in nicotine withdrawal symptoms in contrast to the sedentary mice group.

5. Dopamine Level Decreases

Nicotine releases feel-good hormones called dopamine. Upon withdrawal, most people turn to eat in order to experience the boost of this hormone. The hormones provide comfort and the newly developed knack for snacking can lead to unwanted weight gain. Exercising is a healthy way to increase the release of dopamine in the body. It also mitigates cravings and manages mood swings. 

6. Less Calorie Burning 

Nicotine can burn about 200 calories in one day. Without it, there will be a decrease in your calorie-burning capabilities. Mindful snacking and exercise can be your solace but if you give in to the withdrawal symptoms of smoking cessation, then you are simply making things worse for yourself.

Because of the following nicotine withdrawal symptoms, people get intimidated and scared of the whole idea of quitting cigarettes. Why would you put yourself through that, right? Most women are likely to return to smoking to stop weight gain.

Why Do People Turn To Food After Quitting Cigarette Smoking?

The majority of people replace smoking with snacking. Here are some reasons why you might experience an unhealthy relationship with food due to smoking cessation:

  1. Lighting up a cigarette is a smoker’s response to everything. Accomplished something at work on time? Light a cigarette. Worried about meeting a deadline? Light a cigarette. Happy, sad, or angry, a cigarette is the first thing smokers reach out for whenever they are overwhelmed with emotions. When you light up a smoke, nicotine increases dopamine and epinephrine levels of the brain. This is evident during the first few cigarettes but in time the combined effects of these two hormones called nicotine buzz will fade (13). Most people just continue smoking in order to chase that pleasure and elevated mood. Since what you eat affects your mental health, consuming foods like chocolates and other unhealthy foods can give you a sugar high that can replace your yearning for that nicotine buzz. Food can be a source of comfort and withdrawing from smoking is uncomfortable. Because food is the next best thing that can give that happy feeling, you may become more dependent on food to improve your mood.
  2. Food becomes tastier. If you are a chronic smoker, the smoke stays in your mouth for a long time which masks the taste of any food you eat. After quitting, you can taste the food better and enjoy it more.
  3. Smokers usually skip breakfast. This is because they are satisfied with just sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes to start their day. When you quit smoking, you will start looking for food to fuel you up at the beginning of the day. While having a nice breakfast is healthier than the coffee and cigarette combination, it can lead to weight gain in the first few months.
  4. Another habit that smokers develop is the unconscious need to bring the hand to the mouth. Again, eating can remedy this desire. With food in hand, you reenact the feeling of having a cigarette in hand as it goes to the mouth. While this seems like a petty and absurd reason to turn to food, you can’t underestimate the power of the subconscious.

Overcoming Weight Gain Due to Smoking Cessation

Overeating, poor nutrition, lethargy, and weight gain can be prevented by discipline and hard work. All of these things are normal when quitting smoking, but this is not a valid excuse to let yourself go. 

1. Be Smart With Your Snack Choices

Carefully consider the way you select your snacks. If you tend to just grab some tasty treats when you go to the grocery, you need to take a step back and reevaluate the way you snack. Take time to prepare your snack earlier, so you will not be tempted to snack unhealthily when the munchies come to play. According to one study, fruits and vegetables can help you end tobacco cravings for good (14). The consumption of these healthy foods is inversely linked with nicotine dependence indicators. Below are some healthy snack ideas:

  • Lean meat with a bit of cheese for flavor
  • Vegetable sticks like celery and carrots dipped in hummus
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Cocoa
  • Frozen fruits like grapes and bananas
  • Popcorn
  • Fresh fruits 
  • Yogurt
  • Herbal teas

You notice how these foods on the list will not deprive you of flavor. It just doesn’t have any unhealthy junk food. You can eat healthy without having to compromise your newly improved taste buds.

2. Be Conscious of How You Eat

Aside from checking the quality of food that you eat, you need to be mindful of your eating behavior, especially since it can take the place of your smoking habit. Always eat with awareness by doing the following tips:

  • Avoid eating in front of the computer and television. Distractions can lead to eating more than one serving.
  • Always eat at your dining table. If you eat inside your room or in the living room, you are not practicing mindful eating.
  • Measure your food or at least be aware of your portion sizes. Try to eat with a smaller portion first and see how it goes.
  • Do not serve food in family style. Avoid placing all the platters of food on the table.
  • Check why you want to eat. Do you really feel hungry or are you just bored? 

3. Steer Clear of Alcohol

Alcohol is not only high in calories making it a contributor to weight gain, but it is also likely to lower down your inhibitions, so you might end up lighting up a cigarette or two. Also, for most smokers drinking alcohol goes perfectly with smoking. Therefore, it increases the temptation to grab a cigarette.  Approximately 80 % of people who are considered alcoholics smoke cigarettes and are nicotine dependent according to research conducted in 1996 (15). Avoiding alcohol, especially during the first few months of your battle with smoking cessation.

4. Exercise Regularly

Earlier it was mentioned that exercise is an effective way to increase dopamine release in the body and alleviate the negative effects of smoking withdrawal. Furthermore, the type of exercise can determine the effects it has on smoking cessation. According to one study, yoga with cognitive behavioral therapy showed positive effects on smoking cessation (16). Aerobic exercises can reduce the urge to smoke as it strengthens the lungs and heart. Examples of aerobic exercises are running, dancing, cycling, and boxing. In just 50 minutes of exercise, withdrawal symptoms and cigarette cravings are reduced. It also is a good coping mechanism to reduce stress and improve your mood. Below are some tips to get into the habit of exercising after quitting on cigarettes.

  • Find time in your busy schedule to exercise.
  • Try to have at least 30 minutes of activity every day or at least most days of the week. If you can’t do so, exercising for 10 minutes three times a day can exhibit the same results.
  • If you have a busy schedule, you will benefit greatly if you incorporate exercises in your activities. There is no need to hit the gym when you can take the stairs instead of using escalators and elevators every chance you get. Walking to your destination whenever possible is good cardio in itself.
  • Choose activities that you love. Aside from taking up yoga lessons, dancing, or biking around the neighborhood, you can work up a sweat in house chores such as gardening.
  • Try new activities. Do not limit your options. Learn new activities and keep your exercise routine interesting.

Key Takeaway

Although smoking cessation can lead to weight gain because of the dwindling effects of nicotine in the body, there are several measures that can be taken to prevent and manage it. Weight gain can be recovered, but diseases like lung cancer can be fatal.


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