How Do I Quit Smoking Without Gaining Weight?

One of the most common ways we talk ourselves into smoking again after we quit is we gain a few pounds, blame it on quitting, and decide that we’d rather take our chances with smoking than gain any more weight.

The thing is, quitting smoking does not make you gain weight. Eating more food than you need, or eating the wrong kinds of food, is what makes you gain weight. I’ve worked with lots of quitters who gained weight when they quit, and I’ve worked with lots of other quitters who maintained their weight – or even lost weight – when they quit. The difference between them boils down to attitude and preparation.

Remember before, when we talked about how emotion beats logic every time? We may have every logical reason in the world to quit, but the emotional impact of gaining a few extra pounds can have a surprisingly powerful effect: it can trump all of your logical reasons to quit and send you back to smoking again.

So How Do I Quit Smoking Without Gaining Weight?

This may seem obvious, but the best way to avoid relapsing because you gained weight is not to gain weight when you quit. But how do you do that?

Get yourself a journal. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; I used a series of little notebooks about the size of 3 X 5 index cards that cost me about a dollar each. Get something you can carry with you wherever you go, because you’ll need it handy at a moment’s notice.

For the rest of the time you’re preparing to quit, you’re going to keep track of two events in this journal: you’re going to keep track of every time you smoke, and every time you eat.

Whenever you smoke, write down the time, note whether you’re “just smoking”, “need one”, or “REALLY need one” (you can use some kind of shorthand for this, just so it conveys your relative level of how much you feel you “need” this cigarette) and whether your general mood at that moment is “good”, “bad”, or “indifferent” (once again, you can use some kind of shortcut for this, like “:)”, “:|”, and “:(“; just so it gives you an idea of your general mood at the time you smoked this particular cigarette).

And every time you eat, note the time, what you ate (both the food and how much of it), and whether you’re “just eating”, “hungry”, or “REALLY hungry” (you can use another kind of shorthand for this, just so it conveys your relative level of how much you feel you need to eat at this time).

Be faithful about this. Note every single cigarette you smoke and every single time you eat. When you quit, you’re going to use this information to short-circuit the “smoking your food/eating your cigarette” trap.

The “Smoking Your Food/Eating Your Cigarette” Trap?

Yes. The “smoking your food/eating your cigarette” trap. Here’s why I call it that: when we smoke, the nicotine plugs into some of the same neuroreceptors in our brains as food does when we eat. One of the side effects of this is that sometimes, when we’re hungry, our brain interprets this signal as nicotine withdrawal, and so, instead of eating, we grab a cigarette instead. This is why nicotine acts as an appetite suppressant (and a very effective one).

Over time, the more we smoke, the more this connection gets established, until we’re more likely to reach for a cigarette than a sandwich when we’re hungry. After we quit, our brains frequently make the opposite mistake – by interpreting our nicotine withdrawal as hunger – and we reach for a sandwich when what we really want is a cigarette.

So you see how it works: the whole time you’re smoking, you’re setting up the “smoking your food” part of the trap, and then, when you quit, the “eating your cigarette” part of the trap gets sprung.

The way you escape the trap is by using your journal. Here’s how:

After you quit, whenever you feel like eating, check the time and take a look through your journal: if you find you had a regular pattern of eating around this same time of day, then go ahead and eat what you would normally eat at those times.

On the other hand, if you find a regular pattern of smoking around this same time, then you’re probably mistaking nicotine withdrawal for hunger, so you probably shouldn’t eat right now. Have a glass of water instead; it’ll make you feel full for a minute or two (long enough to get past the phony hunger pang).

This is a highly effective strategy for avoiding excessive weight gain when you quit smoking (unless you were already overeating before you quit; if you continue overeating after you quit because that was your normal way of eating before you quit, this may not help that much).

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