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Staying healthy while stopping smoking

Dr Luke James is Medical Director, Bupa Global and UK Insurance and Dr Caroline Wood is Head of Behavioural Insights and Research, Bupa UK.
11 August 2020

If you’re stopping smoking, you might be wondering how to make sure that giving up cigarettes doesn’t lead to other unhealthy habits. Stopping smoking can be tough, and it can be tempting to reach for things such as food and alcohol to help you cope. Here we share some tips about how to stay healthy when you are dealing with the effects of quitting.

Eating well

You might find your eating habits change once you have given up cigarettes, and lots of people find that they gain weight. This can be for several reasons:

  • Smoking speeds up your metabolism, so you might be used to eating larger portions than you now need.
  • Smoking can reduce your appetite, so stopping smoking makes you feel hungrier.
  • Your sense of taste and smell might improve, making food more enjoyable.
  • You might eat to cope with the stress of nicotine cravings.
  • You might be eating as a way to keep your hands and mouth busy.

If you find that you are hungrier after stopping smoking, make sure you are eating regular, healthy, balanced meals. If you find yourself reaching for snacks throughout the day, try to keep healthier foods within easy reach. When you eat, try to be mindful; focus on the food that you are enjoying and pay attention to when you are full.

It is also important to stay hydrated, because sometimes we can confuse feeling thirsty with feeling hungry. Fill a water bottle up first thing in the morning, keep it with you and try to take small sips regularly throughout the day.

It’s also important to understand that even if you do gain some weight, the benefits of stopping smoking are far more important.

Staying active

If you’ve recently stopped smoking, making an effort to do more exercise might help you stay smoke-free. Setting exercise goals can help distract you from focusing on your cravings and help you change your routine from one which included smoking breaks.

Exercising can also be a great way to give your mood a boost, and you might find it easier now you are no longer smoking. Increasing your exercise may also help to minimise any weight gain.

Alcohol

Some people find they drink more alcohol when they give up smoking. Because of this, it’s important to be aware of your drinking habits.

When drinking alcohol, you should aim to have no more than 14 units per week. One unit is roughly equivalent to:

  • half a pint of beer or lager
  • a single shot of spirits, or
  • a small glass of wine

If you regularly drink 14 units a week, try to space your drinks out over three or more days. When you are drinking, try to do so slowly, alternating with water or soft drinks.

Keeping an eye on your drinking habits might also help you to stay away from cigarettes. People are more likely to smoke when they’ve had an alcoholic drink. Situations like parties and special occasions can be difficult to navigate as an ex-smoker and make it harder to avoid temptation. Try to think of some other ways to spend time with friends and family, like going for a walk or meeting in a smoke-free venue.

Mental health

People who quit smoking tend to be less stressed and anxious than those who continue. However, the early stages of quitting can be difficult to cope with.

As your body goes through nicotine withdrawal, you might find that you feel tense, anxious and have a short temper. These are normal reactions to stopping smoking. Try to look after your mental health by doing things you find relaxing like watching a film, reading, or taking a bath.

Make sure that you still set aside time for a break, even though you are no longer taking cigarette breaks. You might find taking up a hobby, learning a new skill or reading a book helps you to get some down time.

Getting help

It’s important to remember that stopping smoking can be very difficult. If you find yourself adopting unhealthy behaviours during this time, try not to be too hard on yourself. Be mindful of your choices and try to stay as healthy as you can.

There are also other things you can try which may help you as you go smoke-free:

  • Stop smoking services offering one-to-one help, as well as group sessions, where you can talk about quitting and how it’s affecting you.
  • Nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) such as patches or gum, which might reduce your withdrawal symptoms.
  • Ask your doctor about medicines such as bupropion or varenicline which are available on prescription and can reduce your cravings.
  • Using e-cigarettes (also known as vaping). These are considered less harmful than smoking cigarettes and many people find them helpful, but they are not risk-free.

Dr Luke James and Dr Caroline Wood
Dr Luke James is Medical Director, Bupa Global and UK Insurance and Dr Caroline Wood is Head of Behavioural Insights and Research, Bupa UK.

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