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How to Avoid Falling Into Using Food to Replace Tobacco
It’s a classic story. You stop smoking, and immediately the weight appears. How did this happen? What’s going on?
Some people deliberately return to smoking because they find the weight gain unbearable. How do you avoid this?
You have reasons for wanting to quit smoking. Maybe you don’t like the smell. Maybe your family has complained that it’s terrible for your health. Perhaps it’s putting extra strain on your budget.
But how do you stop smoking without eating to compensate? You don’t.
Increased Weight Is Common and Almost Expected
You are likely to eat more when you first quit smoking, but that increased eating is healthy.
It might feel like you are binge eating at first because you are eating more than you did when you smoked, but this isn’t necessarily bingeing. The truth is that smoking suppresses your appetite, so when people are smoking, they undereat.
When you stop smoking, your body mass index (BMI) returns to a healthier (but higher) set point weight, which can seem counterintuitive.
Many will attest that they gained weight when they stopped smoking. And that’s true. Researchers say people who quit smoking gain an average of five pounds the following year. 
How to Reduce Anxiety About Weight Gain
So, what can you do if you’ve tried to quit (possibly numerous times) but have been put off because you gained weight? Research shows that programs that reduce anxiety about weight gain help people who quit smoking avoid returning to the habit. 
The health consequences of quitting smoking are so beneficial that they far outweigh the problems associated with your weight returning to a healthy set point.
If you are thinking about quitting smoking, here are some key steps:
- Understand nicotine addiction.
- Know why you want to quit smoking.
- Ask yourself the following questions:
- How does smoking affect your health and the health of your family?
- What activities would getting fit help you to do?
- How does smoking affect your social movements and enjoyment?
- Do the people around you notice the smell of cigarettes on your clothes, hair, and breath?
- Are you cutting down on things because of the growing financial cost of cigarettes?
- Learn from past mistakes.
- Work out a plan to quit.
- Ask for help from a professional or family and friends.
Tips for Not Replacing Cigarettes With Food
You might feel like you are using food to replace tobacco. Practicing mindfulness around your eating can help you avoid binge eating after quitting smoking.
Some tips to consider:
- Ask yourself if you’re eating because you’re hungry, anxious, lonely, bored, or tired.
- Try to eat while sitting down at the table.
- Prepare foods you love to eat.
- Eat slowly and enjoy your food’s smell, texture, and taste.
- Try to avoid watching television or other screens while you’re eating.
- Think about what foods nourish you and help you feel positive, energetic, and motivated.
- Listen to some relaxing music while you eat.
- Make the meal special like you’re on a date, even if you’re eating alone.
- Take a moment to feel grateful and breathe deeply before diving into the food.
It can be difficult if you feel like you are replacing tobacco with food when trying to quit smoking. If you feel like this is the case, it might help to practice some mindfulness more generally. Many free mindfulness tools are available:
Keep Healthy Snacks Nearby
Keep plenty of ready-to-eat snacks nearby, so you can pop a healthy treat into your mouth when you’re tempted to smoke. Some people find that freezing their snacks makes them taste even better, and the cool temperature could make you eat slower too.
Cook Healthy Meals
Consider cooking complex, vegetarian meals for dinner. Load up on vegetables, and use plenty of spice to make the dishes fragrant and tasty.
You’ll focus on cooking (not smoking) as you prepare your meals, and you might be surprised at how good your meals taste. Bring leftovers to work the next day for a quick and tasty meal.
If you have a favorite recipe, dust it off and head into the kitchen. Food tends to taste better when you quit smoking, so that old favorite could be even more appealing when you’re no longer using tobacco. Your meal could be a nice reward for all your hard work.
Best Things to Eat When Quitting Smoking
Rather than worrying about eating too much after quitting smoking, focus on what you’re eating. Find the right mix of foods to nourish your body while your tissues heal from smoking damage.
The American Cancer Society says some foods can help you overcome nicotine cravings.  Try these foods:
Foods to Avoid
Foods to avoid while quitting smoking include processed options, such as soft drinks, chips, candies, crackers, and cakes.  These foods are packed tight with calories and can add to weight gain concerns.
Talk with your doctor if you’re struggling to stop binge eating after quitting smoking. Treatment programs can help you regain control.
- Bush T, Lovejoy JC, Deprey M, Carpenter KM. (2016). The effect of tobacco cessation on weight gain, obesity, and diabetes risk. Obesity (Silver Spring); 24(9):1834-41.
- Perkins KA, Marcus MD, Levine MD, D’Amico D, Miller A, Broge M, Ashcom J, Shiffman S. Cognitive-behavioral therapy to reduce weight concerns improves smoking cessation outcome in weight-concerned women. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; 69(4):604-13.
- Help for Cravings and Tough Situations While You’re Quitting Tobacco. (2020). American Cancer Society. Accessed September 2022.
- Quitting Smoking and Managing Weight. (2022). Victoria State Government. Accessed September 2022.
Last updated on January 11, 2023 and reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC