Why You Gain Weight After You Quit Smoking

Young woman enjoying a healthy snack during a break in office
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People often worry about gaining weight when they decide to quit smoking. It is important to recognize that while gaining some weight when you first quit is common, many people are able to lose this weight over time.

While a small gain is normal, it may also erode your determination to stay off cigarettes. Finding ways to cope with weight gain can help you stick to your goals in the long term.

This article discusses what you can do to keep your weight under control as you go through the process of recovery from nicotine addiction. It also covers steps you can take to avoid letting weight gain derail your motivation and commitment to quitting smoking.

Why You Gain Weight When You Quit Smoking

There are a number of factors that contribute to weight gain after you quit smoking. First, smoking does have a slight impact on metabolism. Heavy smoking can cause a person to burn up to 200 more calories per day, which leads to a small increase in overall metabolism.

Research also suggests that giving up cigarettes causes the brain to seek out a replacement for nicotine. Specifically, it causes increased cravings for foods that are high in carbohydrates and sugar. According to research, this compensatory behavior and subsequent weight gain play a part in people returning to cigarettes.

When you quit smoking, a gain of between 5 and 10 pounds during the first few months of cessation is normal.

Why You Want to Eat More

Smoking cessation throws our bodies into shock. Increased appetite is a side effect of quitting tobacco for most people. Some of the reasons why you might find yourself wanting to eat more after you quit smoking include the following.

Cigarettes Are an Appetite Suppressant

People who smoke often avoid between-meal snacking by smoking. Nicotine is a stimulant, and may also interfere with the release of the hormone insulin. Insulin controls glucose levels in the blood. When this function is blocked, a person will become slightly hyperglycemic, and as a result, the body and brain may slow down the hormones and other signals that trigger feelings of hunger.

Food Acts as a Replacement for Smoking

Early on in a person's quit journey, the urge to smoke is frequent and uncomfortable. Many people feel the loss of the hand-to-mouth action of smoking acutely, and food often seems like a reasonable replacement. This can lead to overeating and weight gain though, so it's better to find a healthier substitute for smoking.

Dopamine Affects the Urge to Snack

Nicotine and food share a common chemical reaction in our brains: the release of dopamine. Dopamine is called the "feel good" hormone because it creates a sense of well-being. When nicotine is no longer in the picture, people often turn to food for that boost.

The emotional comfort food gives us is a result of this chemical reaction in the brain. Exercise also releases dopamine, so consider getting active as a way of improving your mood and minimizing cravings. It will have the added benefit of helping you to speed up a sluggish metabolism and avoid weight gain as well—a win every way you look at it.

Recap

Quitting smoking often results in increased appetite, which occurs for a number of reasons. Less nicotine can stimulate appetite, while people may also turn to food for comfort as a replacement for smoking.

Does Weight Gain Pose Health Risks?

Gaining weight when you are quitting smoking can no doubt be frustrating. It may also affect your motivation to give up cigarettes. You might also worry that you are replacing one health problem with another, since gaining weight might increase your risk of other health issues such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Research suggests that while weight gain is common with smoking cessation, the health benefits of quitting outweigh the health risks associated with gaining weight. A 2021 study published in JAMA Network Open found that the weight gain associated with smoking cessation poses a trivial health risk when contrasted with the health benefits of quitting smoking.

The study also found that while people who quit experienced an increased body mass index, they still had a lower risk for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) than those who continued to smoke.

Recap

If you're worried about the health risks of gaining weight when you quit smoking, it is important to recognize that the health benefits of giving up cigarettes surpass the risks associated with gaining weight.

Avoid Weight Gain When Quitting Smoking

Understanding what happens to your body when you quit smoking and what you can do to alleviate discomfort in constructive ways can help you stay on track and keep weight gain at a minimum. There are a number of ways you can minimize cessation-related weight gain.

Get Enough Exercise

As mentioned above, exercise releases dopamine and is a great way to stave off cravings to smoke. It can also help you keep your weight stable.

Shoot for at least a half hour of exercise, five days a week. It doesn't have to be a high-intensity aerobic workout; a brisk 30-minute walk around your neighborhood will work wonders for your body, mind, and soul.

Stock Healthy Snacks

Put snacks together ahead of time so that when the munchies hit, you've got nutritious food choices within easy reach. Consider options like fresh fruit, frozen grapes, crunchy vegetable sticks with hummus, seeds and nuts, low-fat yogurt, or lean meat with a small serving of cheese. Be sure to also keep hydrating beverages on hand like water, seltzer, or herbal tea.

In addition to keeping convenient, nutritious foods on hand, consider what not to keep stocked in your pantry. For example, if you have a strong craving for a decadent dessert, consider going out to enjoy a single serving, rather than having an entire cake sitting on the counter calling your name every time you walk through the kitchen.

Avoid Alcohol

Not only is alcohol high in calories, but for many, it is also an intense trigger to smoke. Additionally, alcohol tends to relax our inhibitions, and for an ex-smoker, that can spell trouble. Avoid the empty calories in alcohol, but more importantly, don't put yourself at risk of relapse by drinking early in your quit program.

If your eating habits have remained the same as they were when you smoked, the weight should come back off within a few months. Add some exercise to your daily regimen like a brisk 30-minute walk, and you'll help speed the weight loss along or perhaps avoid it altogether.

Staying Motivated to Quit

Research has found that weight gain that accompanies smoking cessation can undermine attempts and success in quitting. People who are already overweight, in particular, are more likely to gain weight and have more weight concerns related to quitting smoking.

If you are struggling to stay motivated to quit because of weight gain, there are some things you can do to help stay inspired. Remind yourself about some of the many benefits of quitting. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), quitting smoking: 

  • Improves your quality of life
  • Reduces your risk of premature death
  • Lowers your risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and COPD
  • Reduces the financial burdens of smoking

Smoking can also be beneficial for your mental well-being. Research suggests that quitting smoking is associated with a variety of mental health benefits including higher overall quality of life as well as decreased stress, anxiety, and depression.

Recap

If weight gain is affecting your motivation to quit smoking, remind yourself of the health benefits of quitting and the reasons you want to quit. It can also be helpful to remember that weight gain, while difficult, is something you can manage and overcome—just like nicotine addiction.

Coping With Weight Gain

People who quit smoking often decide it's time to clean their lives up in other areas as well. That's great, but be careful. If you try to do too many self-improvement projects at once, you run the risk of not giving the most important ones the time and effort they need.

There are things that you can to do help stay motivated to quit smoking and cope with weight gain. Some steps you can take include:

  • Be good to yourself. Quitting tobacco is a huge accomplishment, and you should reward yourself for your progress often. Don't underestimate the magnitude of what you are doing.
  • Be patient. Quitting smoking is a process that takes time. It doesn't happen overnight, but in comparison to the number of years most people smoke before quitting, recovery from nicotine addiction is short. Give yourself the time you need to heal.
  • Accept yourself. Practicing self-acceptance can be an important tool as you deal with the challenges of quitting smoking. You are a wonderful person just as you are right now.
  • Change your mindset. Developing a new mindset that views challenges as learning opportunities can be helpful. Instead of seeing quitting smoking as losing something, you'll start to view this process as a way of gaining health.
  • Practice self-care. Make sure you aren't replacing smoking with other unhealthy habits. Instead, work on developing a self-care "toolkit" made up of things you can do when you are dealing with cravings. You might go for a walk, talk to a friend, or try out a hobby as a way to distract yourself.
  • Find social support. Having supportive people in your life can help you stay motivated as you work toward your goals. Share your intentions and struggles with a trusted friend, or consider joining a support group devoted to smoking cessation. Talking to other people who are going through the same thing as you can be helpful.

A Word From Verywell

If you gain a few pounds while going through the process of quitting tobacco, so be it. The benefits of quitting will affect your life as well as those who love you in more positive ways than you can imagine.

You can quit smoking without gaining a lot of weight. Don't let the fear of weight gain stop you from giving up cigarettes. A little weight gain now is not enough to negate the benefits of giving up cigarettes.

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6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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