Quitting smoking is a perennially popular New Year’s resolution, but it’s notoriously difficult, and very few people can actually make it stick. Everyone already knows that smoking is dangerous: there’s no need to go over all the reasons again. What’s more interesting is how a good diet can help you recover from that damage, and maybe even make the quitting process easier (for example, by reducing quitting-associated weight gain that makes so many people give up on their efforts to quit).
Here’s a look at food and smoking, and how nutrition can help with the process of quitting (note: this is focused on cigarette smoking, not chewing tobacco, pipe smoking, E-cigarettes, or marijuana – some of the advice might be the same or relatively applicable, but it’s not aimed at those particular issues).
Nutrition for Ex-Smokers
Inflammation and Immunity
One of the reasons why smoking is so dangerous – and why it also contributes to so many chronic diseases – is inflammation. The toxins in cigarette smoke act as a kind of chronic injury to your body: every cigarette is like tearing the scab off a cut again, so it never really heals. This provokes a chronic inflammatory immune response as your body tries to fight off the injury. (For the science geeks, this paper details exactly how that happens).
The good news: if you remove the cause of the injury (the cigarette smoke), you’re giving it a chance to heal. And taking a more aggressive anti-inflammatory approach can help it heal even faster. Paleo is already an anti-inflammatory diet, but two specific categories of Paleo foods are worth focusing on:
- Omega-3 fats: C-reactive protein (a measure of inflammation) is higher in smokers who eat fewer Omega-3s. That’s epidemiological, but in this intervention study, Omega-3 supplementation had an anti-inflammatory effect (among several other health benefits) on current smokers.
- Fruits and vegetables: this study found that two weeks of eating more fruits and vegetables improved markers of oxidative stress in smokers.
From a nutritional perspective, that calls for plenty of fish (at least a few times a week) and lots of fresh plant foods.
Smoking and Nutrient Deficiencies
Smoking is associated with several different nutrient deficiencies, but it’s sometimes hard to tell what’s going on: people who smoke tend to be the same people who eat junk food, so are they deficient in nutrients because they eat worse diets, or is it because of the smoking itself?
This review found that, at least in some cases, it’s the smoking. The inflammation and oxidative stress of smoking increases the need for Vitamin C and a group of antioxidants called carotenoids, leading to lower blood concentrations.
Fortunately, Vitamin C and carotenoids are easy to come by: just go for any brightly-colored fruits and vegetables. The most famous carotenoid is beta-carotene (that’s the one that makes carrots orange), but there are many types found in vegetables of all different colors. You don’t need Vitamin C supplements if you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables.
Avoiding Weight Gain
The most-lamented side effect of quitting smoking is weight gain: after initial gains that can vary hugely from person to person, five years after quitting, most men have gained about 5 pounds, and most women have gained 7-8. According to a 2012 Cochrane review, there’s currently no good pharmaceutical answer for this, and putting people on diets doesn’t help (in fact, it actually makes them more likely to take up smoking again).
Fear of gaining weight is a major reason why many people are reluctant to quit smoking – here’s why the post-quit weight gain happens and what you can do about it.
Entertainment: On the most basic level, smoking is a way to keep your hands and mouth busy. Without cigarettes, it’s tempting to replace that with food, especially since food starts tasting a lot better without cigarettes in the picture.
What to do: keep brain teaser puzzles or something else to do with your hands around all the time. Build up a stash of tea or flavored water if you really want something to taste. Eat when you’re hungry, not when you’re bored or stressed.
Nicotine: Nicotine is a metabolic stimulant and an appetite suppressant. It’s essentially a very low-level weight-control drug. If you stop getting regular doses of it, your metabolism will slow down and your appetite will increase.
What to do: Nicotine might be vital for weight control if you’re eating a bunch of junk, but if you’re eating metabolically healthy food, you shouldn’t need artificial appetite suppressants to maintain a healthy weight. Instead of relying on nicotine to keep you thin, eat Paleo to keep your metabolism happy and avoid the blood sugar spikes (and subsequent overeating) that come along with metabolic damage. Find a carb level that works for you and stick with it.
Gut flora: Smoking changes the gut flora. This study is fascinating: the researchers found that quitting smoking actively changed the composition of the gut flora, to a pattern more associated with obesity: they actually suggested that gut flora changes might underlie the typical weight gain seen when people quit smoking.
What to do: pamper your gut flora with probiotic foods, lots of fiber, and lifestyle interventions to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria.
Hormones: Smoking affects appetite hormones, particularly a hormone called leptin. Leptin levels change when people quit smoking – without going into all the details, ex-smokers’ leptin levels display a pattern similar to what researchers usually see in obesity.
What to do: take a look at some ways to manage your leptin levels. You don’t have to just sit back and let leptin problems send your appetite through the roof.
What if I need to quit smoking and start Paleo at the same time?
It’s one thing to suggest various dietary interventions for smoking-related weight gain, but what if you’re not eating Paleo to start with?
On the one hand, it does kill two birds with one stone. But making two drastic changes at the same time can be totally overwhelming – for long-term success, it might be better to pick one and start with that for a few months, and then move on to the other. Be conservative about how much you can take on; think about what you’ll be able to do when you’re at your worst and plan for that.
Summing it Up
There’s no right way to quit cigarettes – different methods work for different people. But if you’re looking for some nutritional support to go with whatever else your plan is, hopefully now you have it. Whether it’s healing the damage of cigarette smoke or avoiding post-quit weight gain, a healthy diet can go a long way towards making the transition easier.