No one wants to swap one problem for another and it’s no different when it comes to your health. There’s no doubt that if you are a smoker, quitting is the single most important step you can take to better health. A person who stops smoking at age 40 can expect to live an extra nine years than if they continue to smoke.
But research shows that on average smokers gain about 5kg in the first year after they quit and that the fear of gaining weight can become an excuse not to stop smoking. The good news is that the effect on your weight of giving up smoking is incredibly variable. One in five ex-smokers lose weight after they quit. Being aware of the risk of weight gain from the outset, and taking steps to avoid it, will make it easier to control your weight in the long term.
Weight gain comes down to a balance between your energy intake and the energy/calories you burn off. One of the effects of nicotine in the brain is to reduce your appetite, so stopping smoking can leave you feeling more hungry. The solution is to choose foods high in fibre and lower in fat, to help you feel fuller for longer. Keep healthy snacks to hand, so if you do feel hungry between meals you won’t be tempted to reach for chocolate or crisps.
Nicotine also acts as a stimulant and increases your metabolic rate. So when you stop smoking, your energy expenditure falls, perhaps by as much as 10%. You can counteract this effect by boosting your physical activity. Start by making sure you do at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise most days of the week, then gradually increase the duration, frequency or intensity of your activities as your fitness improves.
There’s also the question of habit. Many people struggle to find a physical substitute for smoking. Sugar-free gum is of course a better option than sweets if you are looking for something to put in your mouth. Starting a new exercise plan can also be a great diversion. Better still, your ability to exercise will increase as your lung function improves, especially in the first year after stopping smoking, and you may be surprised at what you can achieve.
So what can you do to maximise the chances of becoming a slim ex-smoker?
There are a variety of treatments available on prescription from your GP or pharmacist that can help you to stop smoking. Interestingly, research suggests that they may help to reduce weight gain too, at least for the duration of treatment. Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT), whether as an inhaler, sublingual tablet or nasal spray, is safe for long-term use and there is some evidence that people who use NRT gain less weight.
Whether or not you choose to use medication to help you stop smoking, you can take other actions to control your weight. Establishing a personalised weight management plan that includes a structured,controlled eating plan, with regular checks on your progress – has been shown to reduce weight gain by more than 2kg in the first year. Regular exercise is worthwhile too as it not only burns calories, but reduces the urge to smoke.
If you are very highly motivated and able to stick to the demands of a very low calorie diet (VLCD), one clinical trial showed that it can lead to significant weight loss and boost success in stopping smoking. This may be because sticking rigorously to a VLCD leads to a build-up of ketones in the brain that can suppress hunger and the desire to smoke. However, VLCDs should only be used by people who are seriously overweight and after discussion with your doctor. Make sure you also have a healthy eating plan in place when you cease the diet to help you keep the weight off later on, our coaches at Healthier for Life can help you with this.
Stopping smoking and losing weight are both easier if you have people around to support you. Make sure friends and family know how important this is to you and don’t be afraid to tell them what they can do to help – whether it’s keeping cigarettes or chocolate out of sight, or treating you when you reach your goals. Joining a group can also boost your confidence and help you to succeed. Our coaches at Healthier for Life can support you to help ensure you don’t gain any unwanted pounds along the way. Find out more here.
Fear of weight gain should never be a barrier to stopping smoking. For someone with a BMI of 22, gaining a stone in weight will only slightly increase your risk of dying early and you can always embark on a weight-loss plan once you’ve kicked your smoking habit. But if you continue smoking, you face twice the risk of a premature death as a non-smoker. And with the right support you can stop smoking and lose weight. For more help in quitting smoking, contact www.smokefree.nhs.uk