The Brain’s Role: Understanding Weight Gain in Smoking Cessation

  • Researchers say many people gain weight when they try to quit smoking because the part of the brain that craves nicotine needs replacement fuel when that substance is eliminated.
  • They say the new cravings can cause people to select foods high in carbohydrates and sugar, causing weight gain.
  • Experts say people who try to quit smoking should be aware of the weight gain issue and develop a plan to replace food cravings with activities such as exercising or chatting with friends.

Smoking cessation may be linked to weight gain not just as a way to replace an oral fixation.

It might also satisfy a need to send replacement fuel to the part of the brain that loves nicotine.

A study published in the journal Drug and Alcohol Dependence has concluded that people attempting to quit smoking don’t just lean toward food in general.

They reach for high carb, high sugar comfort foods.

“There’s a certain part of the brain wiring that occurs with smoking and other addictions,” Mustafa al’Absi, PhD, lead author of the study and a licensed psychologist and professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus, told Healthline.

That wiring, part of the “stress appetite nexus in the brain,” al’Absi said, leads the person trying to quit smoking to reach for those higher carb, higher fat foods.

He calls this “compensatory behavior” often leading to weight gain that stops many people from successfully quitting.

The study and its implications

The study consisted of a group of smokers and nonsmokers from their late teens to their 70s. Some of them were given naltrexone, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder, while others were given a placebo.

The participants were asked to cease smoking for 24 hours and were then given a choice of snacks. Some of the treats were more nutritious than others.

The researchers reported that naltrexone helped normalize calorie intake in the group of smokers to a level consistent with the group of nonsmokers.

A majority of the smokers not given naltrexone reached for higher sugar, carb, and fat choices, differing from the nonsmokers in the study.

The message may be, al’Absi, said, that a focus on nutrition could be a vital part of smoking cessation.

“Food activates the same dopamine in the brain that smoking does,” explained Kylee Pedrosa, MS, RD, CDCES, a nutritionist and smoking cessation program leader.

Pedrosa told Healthline she has seen how this dynamic can play out in real time.

Clients attempt to quit, she said, and then come back with a common complaint: weight gain.

What’s happening, she said, is they are feeding their nicotine addiction with another method rather than fight past it, and they may not even realize it.

al’Absi believes the study could help clarify that.

In the past, he said, many assumed weight gain while trying to quit smoking came from factors such as better enjoyment of food overall (with a better sense of smell and taste) and, of course, wanting to replace the oral habit.

Now, he said, seeing that the weight gain could come partly from the type of food a person trying to quit is attracted to may help those trying to quit understand it better and take action.

That could mean, he said, focusing on those food choices could help more people succeed at quitting smoking.

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