By Jenna Birch, Women's Health
It's no secret that quitting the cancer sticks can lead to weight gain--an incentive, for some, to hang on to the dangerous habit. But it's time to put an end to that ridiculous excuse. A new anti-smoking medication may also help prevent weight gain among quitters, according to a study published in Biological Psychiatry.
Researchers at the University of Chicago and Yale University gave 700 male and female smokers either a pill, Naltrexone, or a placebo. Naltrexone helped the men ditch cigarettes, upping their quit rate from 17 percent to 30 percent over three months, but it did not significantly improve a woman's odds of quitting. However, in women who did stop successfully, the drug helped cut their weight gain by more than half. Those on the placebo put on an average of 5.1 pounds, whereas women on Naltrexone only gained an average of 2.3 pounds. The drug is an opioid blocker, working to reduce cravings for alcohol, heroin, and nicotine, but it also blocks cravings for foods many smokers indulge on while they quit.
Mike Dow, Psy.D, clinical director of therapeutic and behavioral services at The Body Well integrative medical center in Los Angeles, explains weight gain is common with quitting because nicotine alters brain chemistry and induces cravings. "When you give up smoking, your brain is low in your body's feel-good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin," he says. "Many people gain weight when they quit smoking because they trade cigarettes for unhealthy food to get these feel-good chemicals back. Dopamine is released when you eat high-fat foods, and serotonin is released when you eat sugar and processed carbohydrates."
Here's the thing: While more research is needed on Naltrexone (which, again, wasn't actually effective at helping women quit), you don't need to wait for a miracle pill to kick the habit. And definitely don't avoid quitting in fear of food cravings and weight gain. A few strategies can help combat both problems. It's not too late to re-write your New Year's Resolutions list with "Quit Smoking" at the top. Here's how:
Boost serotonin and dopamine levels--just don't do it with food. Opt for healthy behavioral habits instead. "Running to loud music or kickboxing are great dopamine-booster activities," Dow says. "Cuddling with loved ones or pets, calling friends, or taking mindful walks are great serotonin-booster activities."
Avoid extreme dieting
You might think swearing off carbs is wise, but your body needs them to keep cravings in check. "Choose smart carbs like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables to control cravings and boost serotonin to control anxiety," says physician nutrition specialist Melina Jampolis, M.D.
Up your protein
Lean meat, eggs, soy, and nut butters should stay in your food arsenal as you quit. Jampolis says protein with each meal will help "control blood sugar and hunger" over the course of your day.
Your mouth is used to cigarettes; don't neglect it. Chew sugar-free gum between meals. "Quitting can increase appetite directly or indirectly, as you crave the oral stimulation of smoking," Jampolis says. "Gum keeps your mouth busy, and studies show it can even help you lose weight."
Did you used to take a smoking break at 10 A.M. with co-workers? Take your break at 9:30, and go for a short walk instead to avoid the sight and smell of cigarettes. "Just like eating patterns, smoking patterns contribute to addictive behavior," says Jampolis.
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