By Howard LeWine, M.D.
Harvard Health Blog
Many people put off quitting smoking because they’re worried about gaining weight. Not only do they want to avoid having to buy bigger pants, they also might believe that the extra pounds would be worse for their health than smoking. The good news is that kicking the habit doesn’t have to mean a bigger waistline.
Multiple studies confirm that, when comparing the health effects of smoking against weight gain, it’s much better for your health to quit smoking. A few extra pounds won’t hurt your health as much as smoking will. For example, quitting smoking lowers your risk of cardiovascular disease despite any subsequent weight gain.
Researchers say quitters who gain a few pounds still have about a 50 percent lower risk of heart disease than smokers. The same reduction in risk holds true for people with diabetes. That’s surprising, given that gaining weight can worsen diabetes — which increases the risk for cardiovascular disease on its own.
Typically, people gain about 5 to 10 pounds in the six months after they quit smoking. But what happens over the 10 years after that? To answer this question, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine used data gathered from the long-running National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
They looked at the amount of weight gained over 10 years in three groups of people: recent quitters who had been heavy smokers, recent quitters who had been light smokers, and continuing smokers. They also looked at whether a person’s body weight at the time he or she quit made a difference in the pounds added over the following decade.
All smokers that quit gained an average of 18 pounds over 10 years. People that continued to smoke also gained weight over the long term — 8 pounds on average. So the average amount of weight gain related to quitting smoking was 10 pounds over 10 years. That’s not much more than the initial weight gain during the first six months after quitting.
Interestingly, quitters who had been light smokers (those who had one to 14 cigarettes per day) had similar long-term weight gain as those who continued to smoke. However, quitters who had been heavy smokers (those who had more than 24 cigarettes daily) put on significantly more weight than either the continuing smokers or the light-smoking quitters.
Body weight at the time smokers quit also makes a difference. In this study, people who were obese at the time they quit were more likely to gain the most weight after quitting.
If you’re a smoker and want to quit, you might want to have a plan to keep potential weight gain in check. Start a new exercise program before you quit. If you are overweight already, change your diet now to eat healthier and cut down on total daily calories. Making these healthy changes before you quit smoking can help minimize weight gain.
(Howard LeWine, M.D., is chief medical editor, Internet publishing, for Harvard Health Publications.)