Lifestyle

Why those who quit smoking gain weight | Timi Gustafson

Many smokers who want to quit are afraid they will gain weight, so they would rather not kick the habit.

The fear of getting fat after quitting is not altogether unwarranted. Many ex-smokers do put on some extra weight, about five pounds on average.

Now scientists think they know why. Recent studies have shown that nicotine helps suppress appetite by activating certain receptors in the brain, especially those in the so-called “reward regions,” where we sense pleasure and from where many of us also develop addictions.

A team of researchers at Yale University School of Medicine found that nicotine can also bind regulator neurons to these receptors, which send out satiety messages, much like the signals our brain receives when our stomach is full to make us stop eating.

This mechanism may explain why smokers are usually not as hungry when they smoke and why they tend to eat more after quitting.

Considering the implications of their study results, some scientist now hope to develop a drug that can simulate the effects of nicotine on the brain, thereby eliminating the health hazards commonly attributed to tobacco use. Appetite-controlling drugs, like cytisine, to help quitters avoid unwanted weight gain are already available in Eastern Europe but not in the U.S.

Developing drugs that target specific receptors in the brain is a difficult challenge. Some scientists involved in this kind of research have warned that even if drug treatments were to prove effective, they may also trigger some unwanted side effects.

The reason is that the receptors in charge of regulating appetite are also closely connected to the body’s stress responses which normally are only mobilized in times of acute danger. Activating these receptors on an ongoing basis through medication could lead to symptoms similar to chronic stress and, over time, to diseases like high blood pressure and heart disease.

Of course, everyone agrees that fear of gaining weight should not ever prevent smokers from quitting. Instead of waiting for a wonder drug that might help people stay slim, there are many better ways to regulate one’s appetite and manage one’s weight more naturally.

A good way to start is to be more conscious of the metabolism. Smoking raises the metabolic rate and also increases the heart rate up to 20 times of normal. This is one reason why many smokers suffer from high blood pressure and heart disease.

When smokers quit, their metabolism slows down considerably. It can take weeks or even months before metabolic levels stabilize. Meanwhile, calories are being burned at a much lesser rate. At the same time, many recovering smokers eat more food to cope with withdrawal symptoms or boredom. Senses of taste and smell come back to life after quitting, which may increase appetite as well.

Alcohol is often used to “take the edge off” when the cravings become more intense. Alcoholic beverages, of course, have lots of calories, and all too often these are not taken into account.

Another reason for increase of food intake is what smokers call “oral gratification.” Many ex-smokers miss the feeling of “having something to do with their mouths and hands.”

Frequent snacking often serves as a substitute to fill the void.

For smokers trying to quit, the choice of means may change but not necessarily their behavioral tendencies.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.”

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