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Experts say nicotine withdrawal can cause people trying to quit smoking to reach for foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. FreshSplash/Getty Images
  • Researchers say many people gain weight when they try to quit smoking because the part of the brain that craves nicotine needs replacement fuel when that substance is eliminated.
  • They say the new cravings can cause people to select foods high in carbohydrates and sugar, causing weight gain.
  • Experts say people who try to quit smoking should be aware of the weight gain issue and develop a plan to replace food cravings with activities such as exercising or chatting with friends.

Smoking cessation may be linked to weight gain not just as a way to replace an oral fixation.

It might also satisfy a need to send replacement fuel to the part of the brain that loves nicotine.

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence has concluded that people attempting to quit smoking don’t just lean toward food in general.

They reach for high carb, high sugar comfort foods.

“There’s a certain part of the brain wiring that occurs with smoking and other addictions,” Mustafa al’Absi, PhD, lead author of the study and a licensed psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, told Healthline.

That wiring, part of the “stress appetite nexus in the brain,” al’Absi said, leads the person trying to quit smoking to reach for those higher carb, higher fat foods.

He calls this “compensatory behavior,” often leading to weight gain that stops many people from successfully quitting.

The study consisted of a group of smokers and nonsmokers from their late teens to their 70s. Some of them were given naltrexone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder, while others were given a placebo.

The participants were asked to cease smoking for 24 hours and were then given a choice of snacks. Some of the treats were more nutritious than others.

The researchers reported that naltrexone helped normalize calorie intake in the group of smokers to a level consistent with the group of nonsmokers.

A majority of the smokers not given naltrexone reached for higher sugar, carb, and fat choices, differing from the nonsmokers in the study.

The message may be, al’Absi, said, that a focus on nutrition could be a vital part of smoking cessation.

“Food activates the same dopamine in the brain that smoking does,” explained Kylee Pedrosa, MS, RD, CDCES, a nutritionist and smoking cessation program leader.

Pedrosa told Healthline she has seen how this dynamic can play out in real time.

Clients attempt to quit, she said, and then come back with a common complaint: weight gain.

What’s happening, she said, is they are feeding their nicotine addiction with another method rather than fight past it, and they may not even realize it.

al’Absi believes the study could help clarify that.

In the past, he said, many assumed weight gain while trying to quit smoking came from factors such as better enjoyment of food overall (with a better sense of smell and taste) and, of course, wanting to replace the oral habit.

Now, he said, seeing that the weight gain could come partly from the type of food a person trying to quit is attracted to may help those trying to quit understand it better and take action.

That could mean, he said, focusing on those food choices could help more people succeed at quitting smoking.

So, what should a person hoping to quit smoking do?

The first thing is simple, experts say: Know that the effort will be worth it.

“Gaining weight should not be a reason to not quit,” said al’Absi.

“Your weight may go up initially, but as you get into the routine of your new life (without tobacco), you will eventually go back to your natural weight,” he noted. “It might be a little more than where you were before you quit smoking, but (if you have healthy habits), it will be the natural weight you should be at.”

Jessica Titchenal, DCN, MS, CNS, CN, manager of professional trainings with the American Nutrition Association, has worked with many people trying to quit smoking.

She said she the study results were not surprising.

“Let’s face it,” Titchenal told Healthline. “Weight gain is the biggest thing pushing people away from success. They’d rather keep smoking than gain weight.”

One solution? Pull a nutritionist into your cessation plan.

“A nutritionist can really help,” she said. “A nutritionist can look at a lot of things like signs that you may be replacing one addiction with another, as well as look at your energy, how you are sleeping, and other things that can impact the effort.”

Dr. Albert Rizzo, FACP, the chief medical officer of the American Lung Association, said it’s also helpful to acknowledge the comfort food risk and create a strategy to combat it.

“When you realize there are hurdles, you can have a plan,” he told Healthline. “The ability to have a nutritionist you meet with regularly isn’t always achievable.”

He suggests finding things to do to replace smoking or eating when the cravings begin to hit.

“Choose something different, that takes the place of smoking (or eating), that takes about 15–20 minutes,” Rizzo advised.

That amount of time, whether you choose to take a walk, sew, or do woodworking, should help the immediate craving pass.

Rizzo also suggests hiring a wellness coach, if that’s within your budget.

“They may bring a broader view of the aspects of all this,” he said.

He agrees that some weight gain in the process isn’t enough to negate the value of quitting.

“It’s better health-wise to gain some now and lose it later,” he said.

Pedrosa suggested those who can’t work a nutritionist into their cessation plan take steps to get ahead of the weight gain.

“Have a buddy to do this with you,” she said. “Together, you can do things like go for a walking break instead of a smoking break. And you can support one another in the rough times.”

She also added, “Build up your self-care tool box.”

“I know it sounds a bit hokey, but having healthy things in your ‘tool box’ to reach for when you have that craving really helps,” she said.

She suggests filling that box with walking plans, friends to call, and creative ventures to keep you busy.

She also suggests keeping something on-hand that does help that oral urge.

“Sugar-free lollipops and ice pops are a great choice,” she said.

Those are the same tools, she pointed out, that are good to have for losing or maintaining weight, even when not attempting to quit smoking.

One warning she has for those who may try quitting is that weight gain can occur.

“Once they gain some weight, they lose faith (and quit trying to quit),” she said. “And that snowballs into more unhealthy habits.

al’Absi hopes the study results lead to more focus on being prepared for the food challenge as a person attempts to quit smoking.

In the end, he said, the goal is just that.

“Quitting is always the best choice,” he said, “as hard as it can be.”