Smoking has a well-known relationship with weight control, but it is the nicotine that plays the biggest role
Nicotine influences our brain chemistry which can change our behaviours in different ways, including eating food
People who quit smoking have been found to gain weight, especially in the first few months after quitting
Using replacement nicotine when quitting has been shown to reduce weight gain, but more evidence exists for NRT than vaping products to-date proving this relationship.
With over 5 years within the vaping industry, Ian has amassed a wealth of knowledge that is unparalleled throughout the industry. His knowledge extends beyond e-liquids and devices, but covers safety and compliance as well as best practice and more to name but a few.
It’s no secret that smoking and weight loss or gain are linked. It’s not about calorie intake, it’s about appetite suppression. There are plenty of anecdotal examples from people who have noticed a sudden increase in weight gain following a quit attempt.
While behavioural aspects of the habit play a role, the hand to mouth and routine actions of smoking for example, it is the nicotine that plays the biggest role in appetite suppression. With this being the case, does vaping offer a solution to those who want to quit cigarettes but don’t want to risk a sudden spike in weight?
Nicotine and Appetite Suppression
As we have stated, the nicotine absorbed when smoking plays the biggest role in modifying our appetite. Nicotine has profound effects on the body that you can learn more about in our guide, Nicotine & Health. These effects can range from a temporary increase to blood pressure to a sensation of relaxation, and a significant impact on your brain’s reward systems. The latter is dictated by the massive dopamine release triggered when nicotine is consumed, which is also directly responsible for the staggering addictive properties the compound possesses.
We have receptors in our brains and bodies that can be directly influenced by nicotine. These nicotine receptors have 15 known subunits with different jobs which can combine in a multitude of ways to trigger different responses from our bodies, including those mentioned above.
For some time now it has been widely accepted that the appetite slump caused by nicotine is triggered because of it’s impact on reward-driven behaviour reinforcement. For example – when we are thirsty we crave water, when we drink to quench that thirst our brains release dopamine which reinforces the action of drinking water as a reward because it solved our thirst problem. This same action applies to food – when we are hungry, and then eat to sate that craving, the brain again releases dopamine as a reward. Over time the repetition of this reward reinforcement is what leads to the standardised behaviours we all share as humans; we all eat, we all drink, we all sleep etc…
It is this relationship between external behaviours and our brain chemistry that allows nicotine to supress our appetite. When we smoke, nicotine binds to receptors to trigger dopamine as if we had just eaten a meal. Consuming nicotine when we are hungry essentially tricks the brain into thinking it has just received the appropriate reward. As it has experienced a large burst of dopamine, it therefore assumes that the correct behaviour has been undertaken to trigger the reward response. In reality however we have either smoked, vaped or consumed nicotine in some form.
Smoking Cessation and Weight Gain
Now we understand the relationship between our brain chemistry and nicotine, it becomes easier to understand how the act of smoking has become synonymous with weight loss, and cessation weight gain. If a person regularly smokes, they are less likely to crave food and will naturally eat less. Whether this is a conscious decision or simply a passive side-effect of the habit, the fact remains that this behaviour will almost always lead to weight loss, or the maintenance of a lower weight in general.
Cessation of course has the potential to have the opposite effect. When we stop smoking, particularly if we go cold turkey, our body craves that dopamine hit it used to get from smoking. As a result, we often return to a more natural solution to the dopamine deficit - we eat food. If a person had a particularly heavy smoking habit, the resulting cravings experienced during a quit attempt could be very strong. This in turn leads to more eating and therefore can cause a surprising amount of often unwanted weight gain.
There is a substantial volume of evidence that demonstrates the average BMI of active smokers is lower than that of non-smokers. When quitting, the lack of nicotine, paired with the extra time on peoples’ hands (when previously they would have been opening, lighting and putting cigarettes into their mouths) gives greater opportunity for food consumption as there is simply less distraction. It has been noted in studies that, as national smoking rates fall, obesity levels tend to rise. In 2016 for example it was recorded that a 14%rise in obesity rates had a direct correlation with a decrease in smoking rates over the same period.
There is also substantial evidence that a majority of people who successfully quit smoking gain weight. One analysis found that despite some variation between participants, following a quit attempt the mean weight gain was around 4.8 kg after one year of quitting. The study followed participants for 8 years after quitting, and found that some quitters gained 8.8kg over that period, which suggests that the initial spike in weight happens within the 12 moths of a quit attempt and then levels off, despite not halting entirely – while slow overall, the weight seems to creep on although other lifestyle factors will naturally influence this as well as the lack of nicotine. Ultimately the study confirms that the first 3 months of any quit attempt pose the biggest risk of sudden, dramatic weigh gain.
Vaping and Weight Loss
E-cigarettes are the most popular quitting aid in the UK, with over one third of all quit attempts in England alone. It has been proposed, but is yet to be officially proven, that vaping as part of a quit attempt could alleviate the issue of unwanted weight gain. The logic is sound in this assumption; by effectively replacing not only the nicotine delivery but also physical actions of smoking, vaping should present the best chance of avoiding a dopamine deficit when quitting.
The reality is that it would not be alone in this, and anyone attempting to quit should not base their choice of alternative or support on weight control alone. Nicotine Replacement Therapies (NRTs) like nicotine patches and gums have demonstrated an ability to reduce weight gain while quitting. observational studies that have followed up people who stopped smoking using NRT and who continued to use it in the longer term have found that these people experience less weight gain than those who do not use NRT after stopping smoking.
Ultimately, while there is clear evidence from trials of a short-term reduction in weight gain from using nicotine, there is no evidence that short-term use prevents long-term weight gain, as this can be influenced by a plethora of other factors. To date, there is no strong evidence supporting the hypothesis that vaping prevents weight gain after smoking cessation. However, a few small studies have explored the use of e-cigarettes for weight control. The studies we do have available suggest that vaping’s potential as a quitting tool in general trumps it’s influence on weight gain or loss when it comes to deciding what alternative to smoking a person chooses.
The final word is that logic suggests vaping could indeed help you reduce the weight gain experienced as a part of smoking cessation. Despite this, until vaping is accepted into more official stop smoking services both in the UK and abroad, where their impact on weight metrics can be more accurately observed and reported, we can only assume. The evidence from NRT trials stands vaping in good stead, but it may be a while before we can do more than speculate.