Quitting smoking is hard. Quitting smoking and then battling the 5 to 10 pounds that some former smokers gain during the process adds to the challenge.
While there are many reasons people gain weight when they quit smoking, one of them is that smoking is a habit. And one habit often replaces another. After you quit smoking, you may crave high-calorie foods that can cause you to gain weight.
Our habits play an important part in our overall health. Learning how to break unhealthy habits and create healthy ones can lead to better health and quality of life.
The Good, the Bad and the Dopamine
So how do we form habits? Is brushing your teeth before bed the same as drinking a mocha latte with whipped cream each morning?
Research shows that the way we form both good and bad habits is the same. But there’s one important difference, according to Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin.
“And this difference makes the pleasure-based habits so much harder to break. Enjoyable behaviors can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine. If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, that strengthens the habit even more. When you’re not doing those things, dopamine creates the craving to do it again,” Dr. Poldrack said.
This explains why some people still crave bad habits even when the result no longer makes them feel good. But when does a habit become an addiction? The difference is that a person controls a habit while an addiction controls the person. The addiction makes the person dependent on the substance or activity to function.
Nicotine addiction is a good example. There’s evidence that nicotine may be as addictive as heroin, cocaine or alcohol. People who stop smoking often start again because of withdrawal symptoms, stress or weight gain. Those who do successfully quit often require several attempts.
Are some people more likely to develop bad habits than others? Research suggests an addictive personality is a myth. Instead, many factors can contribute to addictive behavior, including genetics and life experiences.
How Can You Break the Habit?
Some people channel their bad behaviors into good habits. One former alcoholic became an extreme distance runner. A former heroin user now leads a global healthy eating movement.
How did they make these drastic changes? Our brains can help us kick the habit.
Dr. Roy Baumeister, a psychologist at Florida State University, says his studies on decision-making and willpower have led him to conclude that self-control is like a muscle. It can get tired with use, but it can also be strengthened.
“Once you’ve exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired,” Dr. Baumeister says. “The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.”
You can help strengthen your self-control muscle by creating alterative habits to use when your cravings for a bad habit kick in.
For example, smoking triggers, such as driving, pouring yourself a cup of coffee or going out for a drink can lead to cravings. So when those triggers crop up, look for something else to occupy your mind. Have your first cigarette on your drive to work? Consider taking a different route to break up your routine.
Many ex-smokers also find new habits that provide a distraction from their cravings, such as chewing gum or crunchy snacks, working on puzzles or using squeeze toys.
Here are some more tips to help you break the smoking habit.
- Try practicing mindfulness or meditation. Activities that train the mind may help change behavior.
- Replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Try exercise, a favorite hobby or spending time with family. Try to be physically active regularly.
- Prepare mentally. If you can’t avoid a tempting situation, prepare yourself in advance. Think about how you want to handle it and mentally practice what you plan.
- Enlist support. Ask friends, family and co-workers to support your efforts to change. Try to avoid other people who engage in the habit you want to break. For example, try to avoid smokers if you’re trying to quit.
- Reward yourself for small steps. Give yourself a healthy treat when you’ve achieved a small goal or milestone.
Get help to quit.
If you want to quit smoking, talk with your doctor about programs, medicines and over-the-counter products that can help you. Your health plan may help you quit smoking by covering the cost of medicine and counseling to support you. To find out what your health plan covers, log in to Blue Access for MembersSM and click on the My Coverage tab.
Sources: Why is weight gain common after you quit smoking? What can I do to avoid it? Mayo Clinic, 2016; Replacing addiction with a healthy obsession, CNN.com, Nov. 21, 2012; Genetics: No more addictive personality, Nature, June 2015; Strategies to quit smoking, National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, 2016; The power of self-control, Monitor on Psychology, American Psychological Association, January 2012; Breaking bad habits: Why it’s so hard to change, NIH MedlinePlus the Magazine, Spring 2012; The Great American Smokeout, American Cancer Society