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If giving up cigarettes seems difficult, take heart in this fact: By kicking your smoking habit, you’ll regain a sense of taste and smell that will make your appreciation of food better than ever.
“Every smoker will tell you that smoking dulls their capacity to taste and smell,” says Michael Fiore, MD, MPH, director of the Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
One puff of tobacco smoke releases a toxic mix of around 7,000 chemicals, some of which can harm the neuroreceptors in your mouth, dulling your tasting abilities, Dr. Fiore says. The good news: The damage isn’t always permanent. Within as little as two weeks of quitting, you’ll start to notice how you can newly enjoy flavors and scents, according to a study published in 2017 in the journal Tobacco Induced Diseases.
At the same time, when you’re trying to quit, what you eat can help you stay the course. While there isn’t an official quitting diet, some foods can increase your chances of staying smoke free for good — and some may make the habit harder to let go. Here’s what to eat and what to skip (at least temporarily) when you’re trying to stay smoke free.
If you feel a craving coming on, reach for a glass of milk instead of a cigarette. In a study published in 2007 in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, researchers asked a group of 209 smokers which foods interact with the taste of cigarettes to make them more or less palatable. At the top of the list: dairy products. (This only applies to nonmenthol cigarettes; menthol can mask lots of flavors.) It makes sense, since after all, milk hardly pairs with cigarettes.
Unlike milk, coffee and cigarettes often go hand-in-hand. “When we ask people which cigarettes will be the most difficult to give up,” says Fiore, “one of the most common answers is, ‘the one I have with coffee.’” The reason: “Many people pair certain activities with smoking,” he says. When that happens, the habit becomes nearly automatic — i.e., drinking a coffee equals smoking.
Plus, caffeine may deliver an added buzz to the stimulating effects of cigarettes, which is another reason why coffee may trigger a strong craving. If you’re trying to quit, Fiore recommends switching to tea for a week or two to help break the association between smoking and your morning joe.
People often smoke cigarettes when they drink beer, wine, or mixed drinks — and each cigarette-and-cocktail combo reinforces the next. “These things are so intimately linked, people don’t even have to think about lighting a cigarette when they have a beer,” says Fiore. “It’s automatic.”
Try to abstain from alcohol during your first smoke-free month, he says, when the risk of a smoking relapse is highest. After that, limit yourself to two drinks; having more can affect your judgment, making you more likely to reach for a cigarette.
Best: Fruits and Vegetables
Smokers tend to eat less produce on a daily basis than those who don’t smoke, according to a study published in 2013 in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research. So when you’re quitting, it’s a good idea to pile it on. When the researchers analyzed 1,000 smokers, they found that those who ate the most fruits and vegetables were three times more likely to have stayed smoke-free for at least the past 30 days compared with those who noshed on the least. One reason? Earlier research indicates that, like dairy, eating produce worsens the taste of cigarettes.
When you’re quitting, you may feel an urge to snack all the time, mainly because you can no longer keep your hands and mouth occupied with a cigarette. If your appetite has grown or you feel as if you can’t stop eating, have air-popped popcorn, suggests the American Heart Association (AHA). Not only will it keep you busy, it can also help you feel full, reducing your urge to smoke. Five cups of air-popped popcorn only contain 150 calories — but they can take a while to eat.
Best: Frozen Grapes
The AHA also points out that you may start to crave sweets after you quit — and indulging in those cravings is a good thing because it can prevent you from reaching for a cigarette. Of course, that doesn’t mean dipping into a pint of cookies and cream regularly.
Instead of grabbing processed desserts, try eating frozen grapes, recommends the AHA. Their sweetness will help curb sugar cravings, and because they’re frozen, they’ll take longer to eat than fresh fruit.
Best: Cinnamon Sticks
No, we’re not suggesting that you start crunching on cinnamon sticks — but some people say that this spice can help keep cigarettes at bay. “Sucking on cinnamon sticks delivers a nice taste for no calories,” says Fiore. “It offers something you can chew on and play with in your hands.” While carrot and celery sticks may have a similar shape, they don’t have the same jolt of flavor as cinnamon.
Quitting smoking is often associated with weight gain, and you really do need to watch your diet. Here’s why: You may find that you’re replacing cigarettes with food, keeping both your hands and mouth occupied. What’s more, you may have been used to the appetite-suppressing, metabolism-enhancing effects of nicotine. “Those two factors lead people to generally weigh a little less when they smoke compared with when they stop,” explains Fiore.
If the thought of gaining a few pounds is discouraging, consider adding high-fiber beans to your diet. A 2015 study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found that people who made only one change to their diet — in this case, eating more fiber — lost nearly 5 pounds over the course of a month. And that may be exactly what you need to maintain a healthy weight in your postcigarette life. Other high-fiber foods include artichokes, broccoli, raspberries, and oatmeal.
Worst: Low-Calorie Foods
While it’s important to watch your calorie intake, relying only on low-calorie or diet foods can backfire. One study from 2005 published in Psychopharmacology found that smokers who slimmed down their diet by 700 calories a day smoked 8 percent more cigarettes than those who didn’t lower their calorie intake.
It may be tempting to adopt a strict diet to ward off any weight gain in advance, but doing so may hinder your attempts to quit smoking. Besides, there are healthy eating plans (like the Mediterranean diet, according to a 2016 study in the journal The Lancet) that are also associated with lower weight and a slimmer waistline — no calorie counting required.
Best: Your Favorite Food
Once you quit smoking, the flavor and texture of food will taste much better. “Ex-smokers say, ‘I wasn’t taking advantage of the wonderful smells and tastes around me,’” says Fiore. Use this time to get back in touch with a food that you used to love before you started smoking. Whether that’s a sliver of carrot cake or a serving of risotto, try to enjoy the food while savoring your newfound senses. It may just offer a glimmer of hope during those times when quitting is a struggle.