Should you put off quitting in order to keep off unhealthy extra pounds? Nope. The science is unequivocal: "There’s no question that any weight gain is preferable to continuing to smoke," says Kenneth A. Perkins, PhD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. Emily Rubin, RD, of the Digestive Disease Institute at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, agrees. "You’d have to gain 100 pounds to have the same health risks that a pack-a-day cigarette habit would give you," she says.
Why do quitters usually gain weight?
Smokers develop a lifestyle that revolves around smoking rather than eating or exercising. But it’s also true that smoking helps you keep your weight down (if at great cost to your heart and other organs, not to mention your appearance and smell). As a smoker, your body gets used to these facts:
- Smoking burns calories. Smoking elevates your heart rate and increases your metabolism; when you quit, you burn about 100 fewer calories a day. After quitting, it can take weeks or even months for your metabolism to rebound.
- Smoking suppresses hunger. Nicotine causes the liver to release glycogen, which raises your blood-sugar level slightly and suppresses appetite. Until your metabolism adjusts, expect to gain about a pound a week.
- Smoking makes you feel good. Nicotine increases the levels of dopamine (a chemical associated with pleasure) in the brain. High-calorie treats, such as candy and cookies, produce much the same effect, so after quitting, you may be tempted to replace cigarettes with food. Alcohol boosts dopamine levels as well, and studies show that alcohol use tends to increase after quitting. This mechanism may explain why bupropion (Zyban), an antidepressant that works on the brain’s dopamine system, has shown to be helpful for smoking cessation.
- Smoking gives you something to do with your mouth and hands. Eating does the sameand makes you feel less deprived by your decision to quit.
- Smoking dulls your taste buds. After you quit, food begins to taste and smell better, so you may find yourself wanting to eat more.
- Smoking is reliable when other things are not. People use both cigarettes and food as a way to deal with boredom or stress, as a reward, or as a crutch in social situations.