Updated 14 November 2014

Quit smoking and stay slim

Quit smoking and now gaining weight exponentially? Here's help.

Are you desperate because you stopped smoking and are now gaining weight exponentially?

Many ex-smokers feel like this. They feel despondent because they've done something very positive for their overall health and longevity, but because they're gaining weight, they feel as if they're being punished. Many even consider resuming their addictive habit of smoking just to halt or reverse the weight gain.

Of course, this isn't a good idea.

Why weight increases
Many people who give up smoking don't gain any weight. However, there's potential for weight gain when you stop smoking because of two factors:

a) More efficient energy conversion
People who smoke are less efficient in converting food energy for physical activity or storage in the form of fat. The harmful compounds in cigarettes can inhibit many of the oxidative processes in the body.

So, if you stop smoking, your energy conversion processes will improve and you may store more fat.

In many people this is a temporary phase that will balance out as increased physical activity, which follows from a more efficient energy supply and improved respiratory performance, will prevent excess fat storage.

These people gain a few kilos initially when they stop smoking, but will lose the weight after a few months without any interventions.

b) Increased food intake
Probably the most important reason why ex-smokers gain weight is the fact that they increase their food intake significantly.

This urge to eat also has a variety of causes, namely the need for oral satisfaction because cigarettes are no longer satisfying this need, seeking comfort in food because of feelings of deprivation, and increased appetite.

Steps to prevent weight gain
1) Watch your diet

If you decide to stop smoking, you need to be aware that you may potentially gain weight.

So, from the very first day of your quitting programme, start watching your diet. To reduce your total energy intake, it's a good idea to cut down on fatty and sugary foods and alcohol.

Just by cutting out 10g of fat a day, you'll save 370kJ, which over time will combat possible weight gain associated with smoking. Having one less drink a day will also make a difference.

If you have a tendency to gain weight, go on a balanced, energy-reduced diet that's high in protective nutrients (fruit and vegetables), and low in fat, right from the start.

Drink 4-6 glasses of water a day (not more, otherwise you may develop water intoxication) to improve the excretion of pollutant substances and to stave off the hunger pangs.

2) Do more exercise
Physical exercise is the best way of stimulating your metabolism so that you burn up energy instead of storing it as fat. There are many ways in which to increase the amount of exercise you do, without breaking the bank.

You can go for brisk walks in the fresh air (which you will now enjoy fully for the first time if you have stopped smoking!) for 30 minutes or more a day, increasing how far and how fast you walk over time.

Buy a skipping rope and skip for 30 minutes a day, starting gradually with a 10-minute session (you may still get rather breathless), and increasing your skipping time until you're doing a full 30 minutes a day. If you have access to a swimming pool, go swimming or join a water-aerobics class.

Joining a gym, so that you can do aerobic workouts such as treadmill running, spinning and rowing, is also an excellent idea as these exercises will help burn fat. If you've stopped smoking, the money you save each day will be more than enough to pay for your gym membership. The same goes for joining Walk for Life. You'll never regret it.

Combat the urge to nibble
The urge to nibble all day to provide the oral satisfaction that was previously supplied by cigarettes, can also be cleverly re-channelled.

Don't think that you don't need to wean yourself of this urge to nibble. Be aware that it may well emerge and make plans to cheat the urge by nibbling foods that are very low in energy, such as celery sticks, carrots sticks, baby tomatoes, gherkins and unbuttered popcorn.

However, you need to be careful with popcorn as it does contain 1908kJ per 100g or 572g per 30g portion. Eat popcorn kernels one by one so that you stretch out the chewing period and obtain maximum oral satisfaction, without loading your kilojoule intake.

Then there's artificially sweetened chewing gum – the salvation of many a person who kicks the smoking habit.

Research indicates that if you chew something that tastes sweet, even if it contains no energy, you can fool your body into thinking that you've eaten something sweet. This will help keep hunger pangs at bay.

Use artificially sweetened chewing gum whenever you feel the urge to nibble. It doesn't contain any energy and can save you hundreds of kilojoules a day.

Encouraging research
Certain pharmaceutical products have been shown to be effective in helping people not only give up smoking, but also control their urge to eat after quitting.

Researchers have discovered that the human body has a variety of so-called cannabinoid receptors, which make us susceptible to certain drugs like cannabis (hence the name), smoking and overeating. Pharmaceutical companies have developed a class of drugs that can stop dependence and also prevent weight gain after kicking the habit.

One of these drugs, called Rimonabant or Acomplia, seems to be effective in reducing body weight and waist circumference and has been approved for use in many countries. However, it's not available in South Africa yet. Until these drugs are available in this country, ex-smokers can keep the kilos down by being aware of the possibility of weight gain and taking proactive steps to prevent it.

– (Dr Ingrid van Heerden, registered dietician)

References: (Finer N (2004) Weight Reducing & Metabolic Effects of Rimobabant in Overweight/Obese Patient. Poster presented at the IASO Regional Congress, Oct 2004 )


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