Ask Dr. Tarman – Quitting Smoking & Gaining Weight

Question:

My husband quit smoking  nine months ago after 45 years of addiction.  Now I think he has replaced cigarettes with food.  I try to make sure that he is eating a healthy diet, he has a good breakfast and I pack his lunch with nutritious foods.  He doesn’t always eat everything I give him but he is eating normally.  The problem starts after supper.  He will usually leave a little on his plate, but whether he eats it all or leaves some he always claims he is full.  Within 30 minutes, sometimes less, he is looking for something to eat and will continue that until bedtime.  He use to get up every 30 or 40 min and go out for a smoke, now he gets up looking for food, and it is always bad food.  I don’t buy junk food or sweets – he is overweight and tired and sore most of the time – but he will and gets upset if I question what he is eating.  I am so happy he quit smoking  but I think he is still addicted.  How can I help him?

Answer:

Your husband is not alone! Many people find that once they have quit smoking they will gain approximately 5 kg weight. While some of this is due to the fact that nicotine suppresses hunger (thus the ex smoker feels initially hungrier more often), much of the weight gain is due to overeating. You are most likely accurate in your assessment: the ex smoker, your husband,  is substituting his nicotine dependency to another addictive, which in this case is  junk food.

Your husband may not be a food addict, but from what you have illustrated, he is eating addictively.

1) He is eating when he is not hungry,

2) he is craving particular food (junk foods) over healthy foods,

3) he is irritated when you express your concern,

4) he is underestimating the dangers of his eating, and

5) he is eating at night when his ‘will power’ and need for comfort are most likely the greatest.

Your husband is already predisposed to becoming addicted to food (namely, sugar and starches) because of his nicotine addiction. The phenomena of addiction rests in the limbic part of the brain and is not specific to a particular drug. When the person stops drinking alcohol, they often turn to prescription medication (i.e. sleeping pills or pain meds) or most commonly food. In my view, sugar and starches are drugs, as they can significantly alter or moderate mood. Comfort food after all provides comfort. This is a neurochemical process that mimics the high of other drugs.  All these substances, i.e. food, alcohol, nicotine, enter the body and ultimately degrade to the same neurochemistry that is common to all addiction. On the neurochemical level, your husband is  substituting one drug for another.

This means that he may find it difficult to stop the problematic eating at night, until he is willing to go through the ‘last leg’ of his nicotine withdrawal process. He also runs the risk of relapsing back to smoking, as often people who have substituted for food will think that the tradeoff of eating poorly and gaining weight has worse consequences than smoking.

I would suggest that you explain to your husband that the science of addiction is supporting your contention that he is eating addictively and if he wants to be freed from him cravings to smoke and eat, he may have to pay attention to the addictive impulses of both and act accordingly. Since neither food nor smoking are easy to quit, and since he is dismissive of your concerns thus far, he may not yet be ready to hear your message.

For your own peace of mind, be aware that two cardinal features of any addiction are 1) denial and 2) an inability to see the full spectrum of the consequences of the problematic drug use. You cannot change your husband’s behaviour or mindset. You can present him with the information and let him come to the decision himself. He may have to ‘hit bottom’ as we say in the addictive realms, where he is loathe to accept the consequences of smoking or eating junk food (being overweight, tired and sore are just some of those consequences) and then will be willing to try anything to avoid the pain that came with those behaviours.

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Dr. Tarman does not do individual food addiction consultations,Thanks.