The Real Reason for Weight Gain After Quitting Smoking — Lessons Learned
When you’re trying to quit smoking, one of the first things people say to encourage you is that you’ll have a lot of extra money that you can use for nice things like buying a whole new wardrobe.
What they don’t tell you, is that you’re going to need that money, and that new wardrobe, because you’ll gain so much weight that nothing you own fits you any more.
I can’t say that this is a universal truth which applies to everybody whoever quit, but it was certainly true for me, and quite a few others that I’ve spoken to in the eight months since I smoked my last terrible cigarette.
Don’t get me wrong, the fact that I’m fatter than I was this time last year doesn’t surprise me.
Weight gain has long been associated with stopping smoking, so I’d have to be an idiot to be totally shocked by this revelation.
No, what surprised me the most was not the weight gain itself, but how much weight I gained and how quickly I gained it in a frighteningly short space of time.
Yes, I expected some weight gain, but I also expected that the added energy I was promised I’d get would help me do more exercise, countering the gains.
It turns out I was wrong.
I smoked my last and final cigarette on September 29th. By Christmas of that year I was already at least 15 pounds heavier.
My clothes were tight, I looked fat, bloated and beaten down, and generally appeared terribly unhealthy.
The dumb thing, is that when I look back on it, I know exactly why I gained so much weight so quickly:
Despite freeing myself of the evil addiction that I knew had been ruining my life, I was still desperately unhappy.
The Aching Void
I know this because, in my first six months as a non-smoker, I sank into a deep depression on two separate occasions.
Both bouts came with all the usual symptoms that I’d experienced in my life-long battle with depression; lethargy, hopelessness, locking myself away and isolating, but I noticed that I was eating a lot more than I ever had done in previous depression relapses.
I was stuffing my face, trying to change the way I felt in the same way that I’d done whenever I smoked a cigarette.
There was an aching void in the pit of my soul, and now that I could no longer use cigarettes to fill it, I was using pizza and cream cakes and candy to do the job instead.
It didn’t work.
All that happened was that I would beat myself up about how much I was eating and feel worse about myself in the process.
The Cycle Continues
I quickly fell into a pattern which looked pretty much like this:
Feel something negative, like anxiety, stress, sadness, or lethargy.
Feel desperate to change the way I felt.
Realise I couldn’t use my normal methods of filling the aching void, and would fill it with food.
Experience all but the most fleeting of moments where I felt better, followed immediately by periods of listening to the terrible voice in my head which said I was bad for eating so much.
Feel even lower than before, eat to feel better, and well, you get the picture, right?
You know the worst part of all?
Even once I realised that I had just replaced nicotine with sugar and junk food, I kept on doing it.
Over and over it continued, less of a cycle and more of a downward spiral where every cake, every bag of candy, every pizza sent me lower and lower.
Just as with my addictions, the lower I sank, the harder it became to stop.
Breaking the Cycle
As hard as it was, I knew I had to put an end to this terrible habit, to break the cycle of eating to feel better only to feel worse again.
So I did it the only way I knew how:
Slowly, one day at time.
First went the bottles of fizzy soda, two-litres of tooth decay in a big plastic bottle.
If I got through a day without buying one of those, it was a good day.
After a few consecutive good days, the chocolate, the cookies, candies, and other sweet stuff went too.
If I got through a day without any of those, and without soda, then it was a good day.
It was a long time before I put together a run of enough good days of that type, but I got there eventually.
Finally, I had to not just cut bad stuff out, but start replacing it with stuff that was good for me. So, in came the vegetables, the healthy food, the litres of water.
That worked, or should I say, that is working.
I’m slowly -and I mean very- slowly, starting to lose the weight I gained. I’m starting to look -and more importantly feel- healthier, and because of it, I’m feeling happier than I have in a long time.
But I’m not out of the woods yet.
Pausing the Movie: When Cravings Attack
Because of whatever madness lies within me that makes me so prone to addiction, there are still days when I crave anything other than what is good for me.
On those days, it becomes a fight -yes, against myself- to stay on course.
As time goes on, however, I find that the fight starts getting easier to win, simply because I’ve learned how to defeat that nefarious noise in my head that tells me food is the way to change the way I feel.
I’ve learned to develop the most precious tool anybody with addiction or mental health troubles can possess:
The pause between thought and action.
When I start to crave food, I can press the pause button and ask myself a couple of important questions:
- Am I actually hungry or do I want to eat?
- What feeling am I hoping to get rid of by eating?
- Why am I having this feeling?
- What healthy / productive / sensible thing can I do about it instead?
Sometimes I only get as far as identifying the fact that I want to eat to change the way I feel
Sometimes that’s enough.
I can tell myself that despite my impulse, eating to change the way I feel won’t work, just like smoking never worked.
Sure, there was that fleeting moment of respite, but it was always followed by worse pain and misery.
From there, I can play the movie through. I can imagine how much worse I’ll feel afterwards, and that gets me through the urge to over eat.
Getting Down to the Root Cause of My Addiction
So, job done, right?
I I simply have to stop, think about what I’m doing, do something else instead, and live happily ever after?
No, not at all.
You see, even if I take away the addictive behaviour, I am still left with the root cause of it.
I believe that my addictive behaviour, be it for cigarettes, food, or anything else, is the result of a deeper, underlying issue, rather than the issue itself.
That means that the biggest challenge of all is simply getting down to that root cause, discovering what this pain is that lies within me and drives me to self-destructive behaviour.
This will be a long process in itself, and that’s to say nothing of the work I’ll then have to do to finally heal that pain and enjoy the kind of peace and happiness I always looked for in cigarettes, cakes, and candy.
For now though, I’ll just be happy that I can finally fit into my old jeans again.