Controlling Your Snacking When Quitting Smoking

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It's completely normal to feel an increased interest in food when you quit smoking, and the reasons come from two different sources, physical and psychological. Understanding what is going on in both of these areas will help you curb your snacking so that you don't end up with unwanted weight gain due to quitting smoking.

Studies have shown that nicotine affects blood chemistry in a couple of ways that influence appetite.

The Link Between Nicotine and Adrenaline

When a person inhales cigarette smoke, the nicotine in the smoke is rapidly absorbed into the blood and starts affecting the brain within seven seconds. The result is the release of the hormone adrenaline, the "fight or flight" hormone.

Physically, adrenaline will increase a person's heart rate and blood pressure and will restrict flow to the heart muscle. The person will experience rapid, shallow breathing. Adrenaline also instructs the body to dump any excess glucose into the bloodstream.

The Effect of Nicotine on Insulin

It is thought that nicotine also inhibits the release of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for removing excess sugar from a person's blood.

Between excess glucose from adrenaline and the inhibition of insulin, people who smoke are slightly hyperglycemic, meaning they have more sugar in their blood than usual. Because blood sugar acts as an appetite suppressant, people who smoke don't usually feel hunger as often as nonsmokers.

You may have heard that smoking cessation causes low blood sugar, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Snacking as a Replacement for Smoking

There are several reasons why ex-smokers turn to food when they quit smoking:

  • Emotional habit: Years of smoking can teach a person to react to everything by lighting a cigarette. You might celebrate by lighting up. When you're mad or stressed, you may have used smoking to helped you relax.
  • Food tastes better: Without the mask of cigarette smoke covering our taste buds, food is a lot more appealing.
  • ComfortNicotine withdrawal is uncomfortable, and food, for most people brings an almost immediate feeling of comfort and well-being. That's because, in our brains, food triggers the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone. Nicotine does the same thing.
  • Meal skipping: Smokers tend to be meal-skippers, especially at breakfast. Coffee and cigarettes don't make for a healthy meal, and once a person quits, eating regular meals again may add extra calories that weren't a part of their diet before quitting.
  • Hand-to-mouth habit: Smoking offers a tactile habit. You'd be surprised how ingrained that action can be, and how fidgety you might feel when you're no longer doing it. Putting food in the hand as it goes to your mouth is a common substitute.

Withdrawal from nicotine is uncomfortable. You need to expect that you're going to want to replace the action of smoking with a substitute, and food is often the choice we make. The trick is not to let snacking get out of hand.

Finding a balance is important because eating too much and gaining an excessive amount of weight could lead you right back to smoking.

Tips for Avoiding Excessive Weight Gain After You Quit Smoking

  • Exercise. Start slow if you haven't been active and work up from there. Exercise is good for weight loss and has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, the feel-good hormone.
  • Memorize H.A.L.T. Start work on deciphering the urges you get to smoke. They may all feel like hunger pangs at first, but if you pay attention, you'll begin to notice that they are indicators of something else—anger, fatigue, boredom, or some other emotion. Learn to treat the symptom more appropriately and it'll be easier to beat the hand-to-mouth reaction.
  • Drink water. Hydration is a great craving buster and helps to flush toxins out more quickly once you stop smoking. By keeping yourself well-hydrated, you'll feel better in general too.
  • Keep healthy snacks within reach. Put some good-for-you snacks together ahead of time so that when the munchies hit, you can grab something healthy.
  • Limit alcohol. Not only is it likely to trigger the urge to smoke, but it's also loaded with empty calories. Avoiding alcohol altogether early in your quit is a good idea.
  • Distract yourself. Most urges to eat early in your quit come from the urge to smoke. Distract yourself and wait for the urge to pass.
  • Avoid empty calories. Junk food, such as chips, ice cream, cake, and cookies are loaded with "empty" calories that have no nutritional value. They are digested quickly due to being highly refined and the spike in your blood sugar from sweets will leave you craving more when blood sugar levels plummet. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains which will keep you full longer and your blood sugar stable.

Have a plan in place to help you manage the urge to snack when you quit smoking. Keep your diet under control and you'll find it much easier to stay in control of your quit program.

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2 Sources
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  2. Stadler M, Tomann L, Storka A, et al. Effects of smoking cessation on β-cell function, insulin sensitivity, body weight, and appetite. Eur J Endocrinol. 2014;170(2):219-217. doi:10.1530/EJE-13-0590