Smokers’ poor diet explains why quitting leads to weight gain

A massive new study has found that smokers, on average, have worse diets than non-smokers. And the researchers concluded that this led to many people who quit smoking facing a new health problem – gaining weight.

The study authors said smokers ate less food but were more likely to find fried foods and add salt and sugar to their meals than nonsmokers. They said the findings of the research, involving around 83,000 British adults, could explain why smokers tend to gain weight when they kick the habit.

Previous research has already shown that people who smoke tend to have a lower body weight and body mass index (BMI) than their non-smoking counterparts, while quitting smoking is associated with weight gain.

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An important factor is that nicotine can suppress appetite and some people may even smoke to help them stay slim. Researchers from Loughborough University and the University of Leicester looked at associations between smoking and food and eating habits.

The study was based on data collected during health assessment programs between 2004 and 2022 by the charity Nuffield Health. The 83,000 adults filled out questionnaires about their usual eating habits, and their BMI was also measured during the assessments.

The research found:

  • Smokers were twice as likely to skip meals and 50% more likely to go more than three hours without food compared to non-smokers.
  • Smokers were more likely to have fewer meals per day
  • Smokers were also 35% less likely to snack between meals and were also less likely to eat food as a reward or out of boredom than non-smokers
  • Compared to nonsmokers, smokers were also 8 percent to 13 percent less likely to eat sweet foods between meals and have dessert.
  • Smokers were eight percent more likely to eat fried food
  • Smokers were 70% more likely to add salt to their meals
  • Smokers were 36% more likely to add sugar to what they ate

The research team said the most consistent observation was that the relationships were stronger in older people. The relationship between smoking and a greater likelihood of adding salt and sugar to meals was also stronger in men compared to women, suggesting that men who smoke may be particularly susceptible to less healthy eating habits.