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Smoking may lead to weight gain and increased belly fat, new research finds. SimpleImages/Getty Images
  • Many don’t quit smoking out of fear they will gain weight.
  • Weight gain is typical after quitting smoking because nicotine suppresses appetite.
  • However, a new study indicates that smoking can also contribute to weight gain.
  • In particular, it increases unhealthy visceral fat.
  • People can avoid weight gain after quitting by changing their lifestyle.

Quitting smoking has many potential health benefits. It can decrease your risk for heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. It can even add as many as ten years to your life.

Many people would like to quit but are reluctant to try because they fear that they will gain weight.

However, according to the findings of a new study published in the journal Addiction, continuing to smoke may also contribute to weight gain.

The study found that both starting smoking and lifetime smoking may increase a person’s abdominal fat.

This was especially true for visceral fat, the fat buried in the abdomen. This type of fat is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and diabetes.

So, while stopping smoking might lead to some short-term weight gain, in the long run, if you don’t stop, you could increase belly fat and put your health at greater risk.

To study the problem, researchers at the NNF Center for Basic Metabolic Research at the University of Copenhagen used two large European ancestry studies.

These studies included 1.2 million individuals who had started smoking and more than 450,000 who were lifetime smokers.

The researchers also had body fat distribution data for a study including more than 600,000 people.

They used a technique called “Mendelian randomization” to see whether smoking causes increased body fat.

This method of statistical analysis provides scientists with genetic proof that a particular behavior is actually causing the observed effect.

They first looked at the genetic studies to determine what genes are linked to smoking and body fat distribution. They were then able to use this information to see if people with the genes linked to smoking also had a different body fat distribution.

They additionally sought to rule out other factors that might have influenced the outcome, such as alcohol use, risk-taking behavior, ADHD, and socioeconomic status.

Lauren Mahesri, RDN, LD, from The Pediatric Dietitian, explained that the connection between smoking and a variety of metabolic disorders — such as high cholesterol, insulin resistance, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes — is well known.

“Although the mechanism of this connection is not fully understood, it’s likely that
these metabolic disorders are the connection between smoking and increased visceral fat,” she stated.

Mahesri also noted that although the study controlled for certain behavioral factors — like alcohol consumption, exercise, and dietary intake — smoking, poor diet, and a sedentary lifestyle can all contribute to the formation of visceral fat.

Jessie Dickinson, RD, from Nudj Health, further stated that the nicotine in tobacco is directly correlated with cholesterol levels.

“Smoking can raise LDL cholesterol levels (bad cholesterol) and lower HDL cholesterol levels (good cholesterol),” she said, adding that visceral fat is directly linked with high total and LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol, insulin resistance, and metabolic syndrome.

“Overall, most findings suggest that there should be an emphasis on the risk of increased visceral fat (central obesity), insulin resistance, and associated conditions among smokers,” she stated.

In the short term, of course, quitting smoking is associated with a small amount of weight gain. In the months after people cease tobacco use, they might gain around 5 to 10 pounds.

According to Mahresri, this occurs because smoking is able to suppress your appetite both physically and behaviorally.

“The nicotine in the cigarettes increases your fullness hormone in your body to physically decrease your hunger,” she observed.

“As well, the hand-to-mouth action of smoking can behaviorally lessen your appetite by limiting boredom eating or stress eating.”

“Both of these things can lead people to continue smoking in fear of gaining weight if they stop,” said Mahesri.

“A big factor in preventing weight gain after quitting smoking is to find an alternative coping mechanism besides food,” said Mahesri, explaining that people often turn to food for everything that they used to turn to smoking for, such as relaxation and relief from boredom or stress.

“If the person finds alternative coping mechanisms — hobbies, exercise — they can avoid the excess calories,” she said.

Dickinson added that it’s also important to make changes in your lifestyle centered around eating a well-balanced diet, exercising, and finding social support.

She recommends a program like what her clinic provides that also looks at stress management, sleep quality, and the management of behavioral risk factors like alcohol consumption.

“Smoking cessation is the best step a person can take to better their overall health,” she concluded.

Many people avoid quitting smoking out of fear that they will gain weight.

However, a new study has found evidence that smoking itself can contribute to weight gain over time.

Smoking was linked to increased abdominal fat, especially unhealthy visceral fat, which is associated with heart disease, stroke, dementia, and diabetes risk.

Experts say weight gain after quitting smoking can be avoided by finding alternatives other than food to cope with the feelings they previously used smoking to quell.

Lifestyle changes like diet, exercise, social support, stress management, sleep, and management of alcohol consumption can also help.