If you have ever tried to quit smoking, you know how difficult it can be. Nicotine may be as physically addicting as heroin or cocaine, according to a group of Italian scientists at the University of Cagliari. And not only will you have to contend with nicotine withdrawal symptoms like intense cravings, anxiety, and depression but you may also have to face the frustrating prospect of gaining weight. This can be very demotivating and can be one of the reasons why ex-smokers, especially women, take up cigarette smoking again.
Why do people gain weight after quitting smoking?
Several factors affect weight gain after the cessation of cigarette smoking. One reason is that ex-smokers substitute the oral habit of smoking with eating. Munching on snack foods fulfills the need to have something in the mouth. Second, since cigarette smoking dulls the senses of smell and taste, appetite increases because food actually tastes better now. The third reason has a much more disturbing explanation - cigarette smoking raises the metabolic rate by about 20 percent according to some experts. Therefore, when people quit smoking but continue to eat the same number of calories, they gain weight. Knowing this, ex-smokers can head off the expected weight gain by making some lifestyle changes.
Exercise is an obvious solution to the weight gain that occurs after a person quits smoking since it uses up excess calories that used to be burned off by the nicotine-influenced raise in metabolic rate. Both aerobic and resistance (lifting weights) exercise are effective.
Aerobic exercise burns large amounts of calories and counteracts much of the damage created by a smoking habit, according to Barbara Brehm, Professor of Exercise and Sports Studies at Smith College. For example, while smoking raises the blood pressure, exercise normalizes it. While smoking increases the rate of plaque build-up in the arteries, exercise slows it down.
Resistance exercise, meanwhile, helps to increase resting metabolic rate by building heavier muscles. The more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body needs to maintain itself.
If you have been smoking for a number of years, it is wise to see your doctor first before starting an exercise program. Expect to start by exercising at a low intensity because of shortness in breath. I hope that instead of discouraging you, this will make you realize how badly smoking has affected your breathing capacity. You need to be patient and build up your stamina before you can truly appreciate the full calorie-burning benefits of exercise. Exercise at least three times a week.
Many new ex-smokers begin to exercise to prevent weight gain but become fitness enthusiasts because exercise makes them feel good. They report that exercise calms their nerves and boosts their mood, which can be a big help during times of nicotine withdrawal.
The worst thing to do is go on a "fad" diet that severely restricts calories. Many ex-smokers do this out of fear of gaining weight. This is not an effective method because self-starvation not only exacerbates the moodiness and irritation already present from nicotine withdrawal but it induces a further drop in metabolic rate. Every time the body senses a severe restriction in calories, a survival mechanism called the "starvation response" is set into motion. The body will drop the metabolic rate even lower in an effort to conserve calories.
Diet advice for ex-smokers hoping to avoid weight gain is the same advice for everyone else. Eat healthy. Eat whole grain products, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and dairy products. Eat less high fat and high sugar foods.
Munchers not only need to find healthier alternatives (an example would be unbuttered popcorn) to traditional high-fat snacks but they also need to keep their hands busy (cross-stitching anyone?).
Have realistic expectations.
Sometimes, in spite of a smoker's best efforts at exercising and eating moderately, weight is still gained. Don't despair. It might take several months but if you persevere, your weight will eventually stabilize at a lower level. As you exercise and eat moderately, always keep in mind why you quit smoking - to have a healthier body and a better quality of daily life.
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