One of the most common reasons that people give for not wanting to quit smoking is that they don’t want to gain a lot of weight. And a lot of quitters relapse because they gained weight after they quit. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
This may seem obvious, but the best way to avoid relapsing because of weight gain is to not gain weight when you quit. But how do you do that?
First of all, understand that quitting smoking does not make you gain weight: eating too much or eating the wrong things* makes you gain weight.
(*The standard western diet, which is heavy in carbohydrates, is very unhealthy: carbs spike your insulin, and the higher your insulin, the more fat you will store. There are a host of other health risks associated with high insulin, but this is about quitting and weight, so we won’t go there. I suggest you do your own research and come to your own conclusions.)
The reason that a lot of people gain unwanted weight when they quit smoking is they fall into the “smoking your food/eating your cigarettes” trap:
When we smoke, the nicotine plugs into some of the same receptors in our brains that get stimulated when we eat. This is one reason why nicotine is such an effective appetite suppressant.
Over time, this connection gets stronger, until we’re just as likely to reach for a cigarette instead of a sandwich when we’re hungry. That’s because our brain is confusing hunger pangs for nicotine withdrawal pangs.
This is the “smoking your food” part of the trap: you smoke in response to being hungry.
After we quit, our brains frequently make the opposite mistake by confusing nicotine withdrawal pangs with hunger pangs. Now we’re likely to reach for a sandwich instead of a cigarette when we’re experiencing nicotine withdrawal pangs.
This is the “eating your cigarettes” part of the trap: you eat in response to nicotine withdrawal.
So how do you beat this trap?
If you’ve been following along with the mindfulness about your smoking exercises, you’ll already be carrying a small notebook where you’ve been logging the time every time you get the urge to smoke, choosing whether or not to smoke in response to that urge, and noting the mood you’re in at the time the urge arose.
Now, you’re going to add more information to this log:
In addition to the time, your choice to smoke or not, and your mood at the time, also note whether you’re “just smoking,” you “really want this one,” or you “really NEED this one.”
The other information you’re going to add is about eating:
Every time you eat, write down the time, what you ate, and your mood at the time. Also note whether you’re “just eating,” you’re “hungry,” or you’re “REALLY hungry.”
After you quit, whenever you feel like eating, ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” (One technique to determine whether you’re really hungry is to pick a food you don’t really like — let’s say you hate broccoli — and ask yourself, “Am I hungry enough to eat broccoli?” If not, you’re probably not really hungry.)
Also, note the time of day and how you’re feeling, then take a look through your eating/smoking journal: if you find you had a regular pattern of eating something around this same time of day and/or when you were feeling the way you’re feeling right now, and you’re really hungry, then go ahead and eat something (of course, this assumes that you weren’t already overeating when you were smoking).
If, on the other hand, you find a regular pattern of smoking around this same time of day and/or when you were feeling the way you’re feeling right now, then you may be mistaking nicotine withdrawal pangs for hunger pangs, and you probably shouldn’t eat right now.
Drink a glass of water instead; it will give you the sensation of something going into your stomach and it’ll make you feel full for a minute or two (long enough to get past the phony hunger pangs).
More on this as we go on.
(If you're feeling a bit lost, it may be helpful to go back to the first post and follow along in order.)