Physical Withdrawal from NicotineStudies have shown that nicotine affects blood chemistry in a couple of ways that influence appetite:
Nicotine and Adrenaline
When a person inhales cigarette smoke, the nicotine in the smoke is rapidly absorbed into the blood and starts affecting the brain within 7 seconds. The result is the release of the hormone adrenaline, the "fight or flight" hormone. Physically, adrenaline will increase a person's heart rate, blood pressure and restrict flow to the heart muscle. The smoker will experience rapid, shallow breathing. Adrenaline also instructs the body to dump any excess glucose into the bloodstream.
Nicotine and Insulin
It is thought that nicotine also inhibits the release of the hormone insulin, which is responsible for removing excess sugar from a person's blood. Between excess glucose from adrenaline and the inhibition of insulin, smokers are slightly hyperglycemic, meaning they have more sugar in their blood than usual. And because blood sugar acts as an appetite suppressant, smokers don't usually feel hunger as often as nonsmokers.
Snacking as a Replacement for the Habit of SmokingThere are several reasons why exsmokers turn to food when they quit smoking:
- Emotional habit. Years of smoking taught us to react to literally everything by lighting a cigarette. When we were happy, we'd celebrate by lighting up. When we got angry, smoking would calm us down, or so we thought. Tired? Smoke a cigarette to stay awake. Hungry? Feed yourself a smoke. This list goes on. Our cigarettes were always on the frontline with us, and were the first thing we reached for no matter what the reason.
- Food tastes better. Without the mask of cigarette smoke covering our taste buds, food is a lot more appealing!
- Comfort. Nicotine withdrawal is uncomfortable, and food, for most people brings an almost immediate feeling of comfort and well-being.
- Meal skipping. Smokers tend to be meal-skippers, especially at breakfast. Coffee and cigarettes don't make a good meal, and once we quit, eating regular meals again may add extra calories that weren't a part of the diet before quitting.
- Hand-to-mouth habit. How many times a day did you lift your hand to your mouth when you smoked? You'd be surprised how ingrained that action can be, and how fidgety you might feel when you're no longer doing it. Putting food in the hand as it goes to your mouth is a common substitute!
Tips to Help You Avoid Excessive Weight Gain
- Exercise. Start slow if you haven't been active and work up from there. Exercise is good for weight loss, and has the added benefit of releasing endorphins, the feel-good hormone.
- Memorize H.A.L.T. Start work on deciphering the urges you get to smoke. They may all feel like hunger pangs at first, but if you pay attention, you'll begin to notice that they are indicators of something else - anger, fatigue, boredom, etc. Learn to treat the symptom more appropriately and it'll be easier to beat the hand-to-mouth reaction.
- Drink water. It's a great craving buster and helps to flush toxins out more quickly once you stop smoking. By keeping yourself well-hydrated, you'll feel better in general too.
- Keep healthy snacks within reach! Put some good-for-you snacks together ahead of time so that when the munchies hit, you can grab something healthy instead of that chocolate!
- Limit alcohol. Not only is it likely to trigger the urge to smoke, it's loaded with calories. Avoiding alcohol altogether early in your quit is a good idea.
- Distract Yourself. Most urges to eat early in your quit come from the urge to smoke. Distract yourself and wait for the urge to pass.
- Avoid empty calories. Junk food, such as chips, ice cream, cake and cookies are loaded with "empty" calories that have no nutritional value. They are digested quickly due to being highly refined and the spike in your blood sugar from sweets will leave you craving more when blood sugar levels plummet. Eat more fruits, vegetable and whole grains which will keep you full longer and your blood sugar stable.
More Reading: The Effects of Smoking on Metabolism