People who have quit smoking have a lower chance of suffering a
heart attack or stroke than current smokers - even if they put on a few extra
pounds in the process, according to a new study.
Although the long-term cardiovascular benefits of kicking the
habit have been well-established, researchers said it's been unclear how the
weight gain that often accompanies quitting fits into that picture.
"Weight gain is a real concern for smokers who want to quit and
this might not only be an aesthetic one," Dr Carole Clair, who worked on the new
study, said in an email.
"Overweight and obesity are risk factors for coronary heart
disease. And it has been a concern that especially among people already at risk
for (cardiovascular disease) weight gain following smoking cessation might
cancel or at least decrease the benefits of smoking cessation," said Clair, from
the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Massachusetts General Hospital in
Smokers' heart rate and other body functions are revved up by
nicotine, which may cause them to burn slightly more calories than nonsmokers -
so when they quit, their metabolisms slow down.
And recent quitters tend to compensate for nicotine withdrawal
by snacking, according to Clair, hence the weight gain.
What the study found
She and her colleagues analysed data from a long-term study of
3 251 people who took health surveys every four years between 1984 and
At the onset, just under one-third of those participants were
smokers. Over an average of 25 years, 631 of all participants suffered a heart
attack or stroke or developed heart failure or another type of cardiovascular
Both people who said they'd quit smoking since their last
check-in and longer-term quitters were about half as likely to have heart
problems as those who were still using cigarettes.
Quitters gained an average of six to eight pounds after kicking
the habit, consistent with past research. But quit-related weight gain had no
clear effect on cardiovascular health, the research team wrote in the Journal of
the American Medical Association.
"It's an understandable concern - might that weight gain offset
the benefits that are known for quitting smoking?" said Dr Michael Fiore from
the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison, who
co-wrote a commentary published with the study.
"This is a good news story," he said.
"You can be assured that if you quit smoking, even with a
little bit of weight gain, you're going to achieve important health
In their commentary, he and colleague Timothy Baker point out
that the new study couldn't zero in on the small proportion of people who gain
more than 20 pounds during a quit attempt.
It's possible those former smokers might still be at risk for
health problems tied to weight gain. Even if adding a few pounds seems to be
okay heart-wise, Fiore said there are steps quitters can take to try to keep off
any extra weight.
"We know that nicotine is an appetite suppressant, and when
people quit smoking they often have an urge to eat more food. What we need to do
is ensure that the foods we're eating are low-fat, low-calorie foods," he
In addition, "If you just build a little more exercise into
your daily routine, you can blunt the weight gain."
Nicotine gums or lozenges may also help keep overeating under
control, he added. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, about 19% of American adults are smokers.
In 2010, just over half of those smokers tried to kick the
habit. Many people try quitting a number of times before they're