Ex-smokers have a higher-than-average tendency to gain weight

THE CIGS-OUT PIG-OUT

March 26, 1991|By Gerri Kobren

Gail Williams-Glasser used to cope with stress by smoking; when she stopped smoking 10 years ago, she stumbled onto a different kind of relief:

"I'd get up and leave the room," she says. "I would go and walk up and down the steps."

From indoor steps she moved to outdoor walks, and then began to jog, gradually extending her distance to 16 miles.

In the process, she became an oddity -- an ex-smoker who did not gain weight.

According to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, that's unusual. Scientists at the federal Centers for Disease Control analyzed health data collected in the early 1970s and collected again, on the same population, in the early 1980s, and found a greater average weight gain among ex-smokers than among people who continued to smoke.

For more than half the male and nearly half the female ex-smokers, the gain was modest -- under 6.16 pounds. But nearly 10 percent of male ex-smokers and 13.4 percent of female ex-smokers posted gains of more than 28.6 pounds. Far fewer of the smokers gained that much.

Scientists propose two reasons for the weight gain:

*Nicotine speeds up the rate at which the body burns calories -- when you stop, your metabolism drops back down to normal or even a little lower.

*During withdrawal from nicotine, your body craves sweets.

But you don't necessarily want sugar; a sweet substitute will do, according to Neil Grunberg, professor of psychology at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda and expert in smoking behavior.

"People who want to minimize weight gain have to fool the machine," he says. "I encourage them to avoid sweets and high carbohydrate foods and to use non-caloric sweeteners on everything instead."

To hold down the pounds, he also encourages aerobic exercise. "A modest amount has a surprisingly powerful effect," he's found.

(Aerobic exercise is the type that gets your heart-rate up to 65 to 80 percent of your maximum; in healthy young people the max can be quickly calculated by subtracting your age from 220. People past middle age and those with medical problems should, of course, consult their physicians before beginning heart-straining activity.)

Ms. Williams-Glasser, an administrative specialist at the Baltimore City Health Department and a smoking cessation counselor, also believes that moderate exercise is the key:

"You don't have to go to extremes," she says, referring to her extended mileage. "But you have to build-in some exercise. You get a lot of benefits, and you learn to maintain your metabolism."

You could also ask your doctor for nicotine gum: It eases withdrawal and also appears to hold down weight gain, says Janet Gross, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the behavioral pharmacology research unit at Francis Scott Key Medical Center. Her own research has shown that people who chewed it as they stopped smoking gained less weight than those who chewed nicotine-free gum.

But you should not go on a diet while you're quitting, she says.

"People who stop smoking are making a great change. People who diet are making a great change. And you can't change everything at once.I think that if you are successful [in quitting smoking] for a month to two months, you might want to think about a diet, but you should not do it simultaneously."

You don't have to gain

When Norma Malis stopped smoking 20 years ago, she knew she'd face public embarrassment if she blimped out: "I figured the whole world was going to watch me gain weight," says the chief executive officer of Weight Watchers of Maryland.

So she developed strategies for avoiding the fattening snacks she was afraid she'd use to satisfy her cigarette urge.

*She enjoyed a cigarette with her coffee, she says. When she switched to tea, she didn't need the cigarette -- or extra food, either.

*She liked a cigarette after a meal. "I decided that would be a good time to get up from the table and do something else," she says.

*She used to smoke at social events. "At a cocktail party," she advises now, "hold a dear person with one hand, and a diet soda with the other, so you don't have another hand to eat with."

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