Smoking is the leading risk factor for disease burden in Australia. Tobacco is causally linked to 39 diseases, including 19 forms of cancer and 7 types of cardiovascular disease. The road to quitting can present a number of challenges, but it is one of the best things you can do for your health. Many people are hesitant to quit because they have experienced weight loss while smoking. So, does smoking make you lose weight? It can, but not in a healthy way. This weight loss does not indicate that you are healthier when smoking, and it is not a reason to continue smoking. Below, we explain how your weight may change after you quit and how you can manage it.
Why Does Smoking Cause Weight Loss?
Smoking can cause weight loss in a few ways.
Firstly, the nicotine content in cigarettes speeds up the metabolism by causing the heart to beat faster. An increased metabolic rate causes your body to burn through calories faster, which is why you may lose weight when you smoke. One study confirmed that moderate and low doses of nicotine can increase the resting metabolic rate by 6%. This increase is actually very dangerous. An elevated metabolic rate puts stress on the heart, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
Secondly, a 2016 study found that smoking reduces caloric intake, possibly due to the impact it has on the hormone ghrelin, also known as the hunger hormone.
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Nicotine also interferes with certain receptors to suppress hunger. A 2011 study on mice showed that nicotine binds to the receptor α3β4, which promotes satiety, the feeling of fullness. The research concluded that when this binding occurs, the resulting feeling is indistinguishable from the sensation you get after eating a large meal.
If you are losing weight by smoking, this is not a sign that your body is healthy. It actually signals that the harmful toxins in cigarettes are disrupting various systems in your body, which can have dangerous impacts on your health.
Why You May Gain Weight After Quitting Smoking
Weight gain is common after quitting smoking. The average amount of weight gained after quitting is 5kg over 5 years, though oftentimes this weight gain occurs in the first few months after quitting.
When you quit smoking, your heart rate and metabolic rate slow back down, because nicotine is no longer causing it to rise. This means that your body will burn through calories slower, which can contribute to weight gain.
Many people also experience an increase in hunger when they quit smoking. Your appetite returns because your hunger hormones are no longer thrown off balance due to nicotine, and your satiety receptors are beginning to function normally again.
Some people also begin to use food as a way of managing stress, where they once used cigarettes. If you feel that you are engaging in compulsive eating behaviours, make an appointment to discuss this with your doctor, as this can be harmful and prompt further metabolic decline.
Can Quitting Smoking Help You Lose Weight?
Research has shown that quitting smoking can actually lead to healthy weight loss in the long run.
A 2012 trial showed that 16-21% of smokers lost weight in the 12 months after quitting. Similarly, a 2021 study by the Endocrine Society found that people who quit smoking experienced a minor increase in abdominal fat in the initial two months after quitting, but then saw a decrease in overall body fat over the following months.
As nicotine is no longer circulating through the body, the liver is able to create more glucose, which naturally regulates metabolism. This means that the body is breaking down fats on its own instead of relying on toxins and chemicals to do the work and cause damage along the way. In other words, when you quit, your body can begin regulating your weight in a healthy, natural way.
When you quit smoking, you’ll start to breathe easier as the lungs heal. Many people also experience better sleep and an increase in energy after quitting. These changes often prompt people to exercise more regularly, which promotes healthy weight loss.
So, while you may gain weight in the short term, it’s also very possible to experience healthy weight loss a bit further into the quitting journey.
A Word On Behaviours Of Concern
Sometimes, unhealthy behaviours are the driving force behind weight gain or weight loss after quitting.
As mentioned, if you are overeating to deal with stress while quitting, it’s a good idea to discuss this with your doctor, as this can have adverse effects on your health.
Restricting your food intake or exercising excessively to lose weight after quitting can be very harmful. If you are feeling the urge to engage in these behaviours to avoid weight gain after quitting, it’s critical that you make an appointment with your doctor or mental health professional to discuss how you’re feeling. They will be able to recommend additional support and strategies to help you through this process.
Coping With Weight Gain When Quitting
It’s very normal to struggle with the initial weight gain after quitting. First of all — go easy on yourself. Remember, in most cases, weight gain after quitting is a sign that your body is returning to health and starting to function normally again. Ultimately, weight gain is preferable to the number of life-threatening diseases that smoking can cause.
There are a few things you can do to healthily manage your weight during this time.
Make sure your diet consists of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains. If you can, avoid loading up on processed or sugary foods. Opt for protein-rich meals and snacks, as these will give you more energy and keep you full.
You may want to chat with a dietician to set up a meal plan. A dietician will ensure you are refuelling with all of the nutrients your body needs.
It can also help to work on mindful eating. This practice can help you re-engage with your body’s natural hunger cues. Mindful eating involves eating slowly without distractions and focusing on your senses by noticing flavours, colours, smells and textures. When you eat mindfully, you are better able to identify when you’re hungry and when you’re full, which can help to prevent unhealthy weight gain or weight loss.
Make sure you drink about 2 litres of water each day. Our bodies can sometimes mistake thirst for hunger, so staying well-hydrated will help to regulate your body’s cues. Drinking water can also help you manage nicotine cravings by mimicking the hand-to-mouth ritual of smoking.
Moving your body is one of the most helpful ways to cope with quitting smoking. Exercise boosts your metabolism, and helps your body burn calories and break down fat, which can help to mitigate weight gain after quitting. Exercise also stimulates the release of dopamine and endorphins, which can help to combat the low moods, irritability, and anger that can come with nicotine withdrawal.
Staying active is also important for your overall return to health after smoking. It can help to prevent heart disease and certain cancers, limit age-related bone loss, and control cholesterol and diabetes.
Find movement that works for you. Whether it’s a brisk daily walk, swimming, running, pilates, or weight training, your body will be much better for it.
Quitting smoking is one of the best things you can do for your overall health.
Smoking can make you lose weight because nicotine impacts your metabolism, hormones, hunger cues, and satiety receptors. Smoking-related weight loss is unhealthy and signals that the harmful cigarette toxins are interfering with the body’s natural processes.
Weight gain is common after quitting smoking, and in most cases, this is a sign that your body is returning to health and functioning properly again.
Many people also experience weight loss in the months following quitting, thanks to increased energy levels, better sleep, and a naturally regulated metabolism.
Eating well and mindfully, hydrating properly, and exercising regularly will help to keep your weight in control when you quit smoking.
If you find yourself engaging in unhealthy behaviours such as overeating, restrictive dieting, or excessive exercising, it’s important to speak to your doctor or mental health professional. They will be able to provide you with additional strategies and support to manage during this time.
You can start your quitting journey by booking a cost-free, bulk-billed telehealth consultation with a specialist GP.