Quitting smoking leads to eating more junk food, weight gain, study finds

Former smokers suffering from nicotine withdrawal may prefer fatty, sugary foods to fill the void

Put down the pack and pick up a snack.

A new study from the University of Minnesota found that quitting smoking leads to a poor diet, potentially leading to weight gain.

The new study found that the opioid system — the brain functions responsible for addiction and appetite regulation — may cause former smokers suffering from nicotine withdrawal to prefer fatty, sugary foods to fill the void.

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The study was led by Dr. Mustafa al’Absi, a licensed psychologist and professor in the Department of Family Medicine and Biobehavioral Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus, who published his findings in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence.

"We looked at whether or not acute nicotine withdrawal increases the intake of junk food — high in salt, fat and sugar — and how the stress-relieving receptors of the opioid system are involved," al’Absi said in a press release from the university. "Mitigating these challenges during the treatment process will help patients quit smoking while understanding their eating habits and encourage healthier decisions."

The study analyzed a group of smoking and non-smoking participants between the ages of 19 and 75. All subjects were asked to stop using nicotine for 24 hours and received either a placebo or 50 mg of naltrexone, a drug commonly used to treat patients with substance addiction problems.

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At the end of the two sessions before and after temporarily quitting, participants were offered a variety of snacks that differed in high to low energy density and dimensions of salty, sweet and fat.

The study found that those who were experiencing nicotine withdrawals consumed more calories. Those who’d taken the naltrexone were less likely to choose a high-calorie food.

 "The study’s findings may be related to the use of food, especially those high in calories, to cope with the negative affect and distress that characterizes the feelings people experience during smoking withdrawal," al’Absi said. "Results from preclinical and clinical research support this and demonstrate that stress increases proclivity for high-fat and high-sugar foods."

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Weight gain or fear of weight gain after quitting, al’Absi believes, may be a factor in causing some smokers to relapse.

"These findings extend earlier studies that indicate the impact of tobacco use on appetite and help identify the influence of an important biological link, the brain opioid system, on craving during nicotine withdrawal," al’Absi said. "The fear of weight gain is a major concern among smokers who think about quitting. The key to removing these barriers is to better understand the factors that increase the urge for high-caloric foods."