Does Smoking Keep You Thin?

Not necessarily. But the health risks are clear — and severe. Get inspired to quit right now!
Ex smoker

When you're a smoker who struggles with your weight, it can be easy to fall back on the excuse "If I quit smoking, I'll just gain." It's true that smoking can seem to dampen your appetite. It damages your taste buds, which makes food less appealing, and it also slightly increases the rate at which your body burns calories — your metabolic rate.

But any weight-loss or weight-maintenance benefits that come from smoking are more than offset by the health risks, which include heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, emphysema, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, just to name a few. Smoking may also affect your ability to absorb nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, and zinc.

And as it turns out, people who smoke heavily aren't necessarily thin in any case. A lesser-known fact is that despite an increased metabolism, people who smoke heavily — roughly more than 25 cigarettes a day — may be more likely to be overweight or obese than people who smoke fewer cigarettes.

"Smoking a lot can increase insulin resistance and cause fat to be stored around the waist," says Dikla Shmueli, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.

Get Help Kicking the Habit

In addition to exercising and joining a support group, the following tips can help you quit smoking:
  • • Join a smoking cessation program — the American Lung Association offers Freedom From Smoking, a free online resource addressing smoking addiction and cessation strategies
  • • Add medication to your smoking cessation program to improve your chances of success. Some nicotine replacement products such as patches, gum or lozenges are available over the counter; others require a prescription. Non-nicotine options like Chantix or Zyban are available by prescription. Insurance companies will sometimes cover the cost of these drugs.
  • • Develop a plan. Think about the reasons you want to quit smoking and set a quit date.

    • Remember what circumstances trigger your desire for a cigarette, whether it's stress, boredom or having a drink with friends. Find new ways to cope with these triggers.

So will you gain weight if you quit?
Many people put on some weight when they quit, usually around 5 to 10 pounds. "Gaining weight is not inevitable, but on average people do," says Norman Edelman, MD, the American Lung Association's (ALA) chief medical officer.

One factor that can contribute to weight gain in some quitting smokers is that their metabolism slows, and they burn fewer calories (about 100 fewer per day). But most of the weight gain is due to an increase in eating. You may want to eat more because food often tastes better once you've quit, or you may reach for food instead of a cigarette when you feel stressed or bored. You may also find yourself wanting to indulge in sugary snacks because sweets may relieve some of the withdrawal symptoms from the nicotine found in cigarettes. Nicotine appears to raise the blood sugar in your body, which may interfere with hormones and other signals that trigger feelings of hunger. Consequently, when you quit smoking and your blood sugar declines, your feelings of hunger may increase.

Quit first — then lose steadily
Experts generally agree that you should quit smoking before you lose weight because cigarettes pose the greater health risk. While smoking causes 467,000 deaths in the United States each year, being overweight or obese causes about half that number.

If you decide to quit smoking and pursue weight loss at the same time, "you may be trying to do too many things at once and be setting yourself up for failure," says Lawrence Cheskin, MD, director of the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Ready to quit? Use these strategies to avoid putting on extra pounds while you do it:

Find non-food ways to feel good. Feeling the pangs of cigarette withdrawal? Put yourself in a new situation: Go for a walk or run, call a friend or take up a new hobby.

Curb sugar cravings. Some suggestions for healthy snacks that are high in nutrition but low in PointsPlus™ values include:
  • 1 tsp peanut butter on 1 multigrain rice cake or with half a small sliced apple
  • 1 cup blueberries with 1 Tbsp whipped topping
  • 1 cup grapes — freeze them so they take longer to chew
  • 2 Tbsp hummus with sliced pepper strips
  • 2 Tbsp fat-free black bean dip with 6 baked tortilla chips
  • 2 Tbsp guacamole with carrot sticks
  • 3 cups air-popped popcorn lightly coated with cooking spray and then tossed with dried seasonings
  • 1 ounce deli-sliced turkey breast on 1 sesame seed rice cake with sliced tomato and Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup salted edamame in pods or 1/4 cup shelled edamame
  • 1 cup grape tomatoes dunked into 2 Tbsp fat-free ranch salad dressing

Be sure to exercise. It's a well-known component to weight control, but it also helps manage smoking withdrawal symptoms. If you're new to exercise, consult your physician before beginning any activity program. At first, you may find that you are short of breath or can't exercise for a long period of time because of lung damage. As your lungs and the rest of your body get stronger, you'll find you have more stamina. The American Lung Association suggests you:
  • Clear your lungs of mucus by coughing during exercise
  • Take the time to breathe deeply during physical activity
  • Stop and rest when you need to
  • Warm up before you get started and cool down afterward
Join a support group. It can provide encouragement and make you accountable to others for your behavior, whether you want to eat healthier, become more physically active or quit smoking. In fact, a recent study found that people who joined a support group to help them lose weight were more successful than those who didn't seek group support.1 1Sacks FM, Bray GA, Carey VJ, et al. Randomized trial comparing fat, protein, and carbohydrate composition of diets for weight loss for two years. N Engl J Med. 2009;360:859-73.

Free Newsletter Get it now