We know that quitting smoking is great for you in the long run when it comes to your overall health and preventing premature death. That’s great and all, but it overlooks one pesky fact: A lot of people keep smoking to stay thinner.
Smokers are generally about five pounds lighter than nonsmokers because nicotine suppresses appetite. Women know this: This is why smoking is often so popular among teen girls, French women and models, who all calculate that in spite of the risks to one’s looks, smoking is a one-way ticket to fashionable gauntness.
Men are not immune to this, either. MEL spoke to a few male smokers who admitted that staying thinner was certainly a factor in their refusal to quit.
They weren’t as transparent about vanity as a motive as women typically are. That may be in part because men are generally less inclined to cop to their own vanity. But it may also be because men don’t always gain as much weight after quitting. While women gain an average of eight pounds when they quit, men typically only gain about six. Heavy smokers of either gender gain the most, with some 10 percent packing on as much as 28 pounds.
“Avoiding another freshman 15 is a constant in the pros-of-not-quitting column,” Alex, who’s been smoking for about 20 years, tells me. He recently dropped 40 pounds, but he still smokes. He has no doubt which is healthier — gaining weight back after quitting, or smoking to stay thinner. But for him, the weight-gain issue was enough to factor in as a rationalization for not quitting.
He’s thought through what would happen if he actually does quit, gains back the weight and then starts smoking again. “Weight gain is triggered anyway, then you’ve backslid into fatness and you’re still a smoker,” he said. “That’s the level of risk assessment. Fear of finding yourself with two now-steeper hills to climb.”
If you’ve smoked and tried to quit, you know that smoking is a time-filler, a time-passer, a thing to do with your hands and with your mouth in all the weird in-between moments of life. It’s how you ponder something, relax for something, digest, chill out, freak out, exist. So once the smokes are gone, you now have to do something else to cope. For most people, that’s eating.
Smoking is a notoriously oral fixation. Take it away, and people still want to suck on something — a lollipop, peppermint candy, a burrito. There are all sorts of foods you can theoretically eat to make smoking less desirable that won’t increase your calorie load by much. Among them: Drinking milk and eating carrots are both supposed to make cigarettes taste bad. Eating oranges is supposed to cut down cravings, as are salty foods and chewing sugar-free gum.
But tell that to someone whose brain is on the fritz jonesing for nicotine, and whose taste buds have just lit up like a rainbow. Food is suddenly in Technicolor, and the last thing you want is carrots (unless you happen to like them) over more electrifyingly dynamic, and fattening, foods. And, because smoking can speed up your metabolism, quitting naturally slows it back down. This means you can gain weight after you quit even if you don’t hit a buffet three times a week.
So if and when you do pack on some pounds, you have two choices: Bust your ass to keep it off, or accept it. And that’s easier for some men than others.
“I quit 3.5 years ago,” says Matt, a longtime smoker in his 40s. “I’ve been gaining and losing the same 15 to 20 pounds ever since.” Did he care about that weight gain while quitting? “For sure, but it was 100 percent worth it to quit.”
Another smoker, Sean, tells me he also put on 10 pounds when he quit smoking. “But I made sure it was muscle rather than fat by working out too much and eating absurd amounts of protein,” he says.
“Also, I would kill for a cigarette right now.”
Like Alex, Jay still smokes to manage his weight. “I have a tight relationship between drinking/smoking/eating garbage and gaining weight, and then feeling very guilty about it, and deciding to work out and quit drinking,” he says. “But I don’t think I can manage quitting smoking while worrying about the other two.”
Even his mother told him not to attempt solving all three issues at once. “My mom even said to me, ‘Yeah, I think you should lose the weight first. Don’t worry about doing both!’ So my mom said I should smoke cigarettes. It’s canon.”
Online, men sometimes post about the frustration of weight gain under cover of anonymity. One man said he’d gained 10 to 15 pounds in 75 days drinking Dr. Pepper alone. “I’m told this is normal,” he wrote, “but I’m not liking it.”
The suggestions from commenters include drinking Diet Dr. Pepper instead, or lightly sweetened tea, or even water. Another suggests, “Instead of replacing cigarettes with food, replace it with barbells.”
There are, of course, the exceptions on the other end of the spectrum: Men who want to quit smoking to gain weight. One such main, a rail-thin musician named Matthew, told me, “I often think about trying to quit with the potential weight gain as a large motivating factor.” He said he’d be “ecstatic” about putting on 10 pounds. On Reddit, a 21-year-old who smokes about half a pack a day had a similar wish. A self-described skinny guy at 5-foot-9 and 150 pounds, he wants to know if quitting will “help me gain weight and increase my appetite? Will it also have a positive affect on my ability to gain muscle?”
The answers tend to be a resounding yes, mostly due to that increased appetite. But even if it isn’t, he’ll at least “have extra money for supplements.”
Quitting or not, the concern for looks is hidden in the subtext. Alex says that even though he can speak only for himself, he thinks weight issues are as soul-crushing for men as they are for women, but men just can’t admit it.
“Men almost never talk about their own weight issues with other men,” Alex writes. “It’s one of the more touchy issues between men, I think.”
“Most people look down on overweight people, judge overweight people,” he adds. “Smokers get judged as well, but I can tell you the dirty looks aren’t the same. A smoker can always shoot back a glaring glance that says, ‘Yeah, and? I don’t give a fuck.’ Fat people usually cannot, because it’s almost never true — they always give a fuck about being fat, and society knows it.”
For that reason, he thinks men are more likely to downplay any kind of decision that makes them “look vain or self-conscious about their weight.”
So in the end, he smokes.
“It’s simple,” he told me. “Being fat feels like shit, and smoking feels great. So cigs sell themselves better in the equation, as vices tend to do. Anyone who’s ever lost a significant amount of weight knows what it’s like to live in fear of gaining it back. And the weight comes back so much more easily than it comes off.”