For millions of Americans who try to quit smoking each year, the name of the game is replacement: When they feel the urge to smoke, they simply replace a cigarette with a piece of nicotine gum, a patch, a pill, or worse—fatty, filling foods. But what if a plate of spinach or a banana could do the trick?
A new study suggests precisely that: Eating more fruits and vegetables may help smokers kick the habit for good. The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Buffalo and published in two medical journals, found that smokers who eat lots of produce tended to have fewer cigarettes per day, wait longer to smoke their first cigarette of the day, and were less dependent on nicotine.
Although the conclusions are just observational, co-authors Jeffrey Haibach, MPH, and Gary A. Giovino, PhD, say this is the largest study done on the connection between diet and smoking cessation. Out of 1,000 smokers who were surveyed and then followed up with 14 months later, the authors found that smokers who consumed the most fruit and vegetables were three times more likely to be tobacco-free for at least 30 days at the follow-up than those who ate less healthy.
“Other studies have taken a snapshot approach, asking smokers and nonsmokers about their diets,” Giovino says. “We knew from our previous work that people who were abstinent from cigarettes for less than six months consumed more fruits and vegetables than those who still smoked. What we didn’t know was whether recent quitters increased their fruit and vegetable consumption or if smokers who ate more fruits and vegetables were more likely to quit.”
As it turns out, they probably are. But why? The answer is not completely clear, but may have something to do with fiber found in fruits and vegetables making smokers feel more full and less interested in a cigarette, or perhaps the fact that produce doesn’t enhance the taste of cigarettes the way other foods do.
It all makes sense to Susanna Starrett, who quit smoking a few years ago. To deal with the effects of withdrawal and fearing the weight gain that often accompanies cessation, the Boston native froze banana chips and snacked on them throughout the day. This kept Starrett “busy and full” and feeling less of a desire to smoke.
“I noticed that my cravings subsided when I ate anything,” she says, “but I felt better about myself when I ate something healthy. One tends to eat mindlessly while ceasing cigarettes, and eating fruit and veggies helped ease the cravings and tension.”
While the percentage of Americans who smoke has dropped drastically over the last half-century—19 percent still do—the majority of smokers say they want to quit. The study’s authors insist that the consumption of more fruits and vegetables is just one of many actions smokers can take to quit, including avoiding situations and people that may tempt you to smoke and replacing your obsession for nicotine with one that is healthier, like exercise. But it certainly won’t hurt—and now we have data saying it might help—to reach for a carrot stick next time you feel like a cancer stick.
Do these results surprise you? Smokers and ex-smokers: Do you find that eating healthier helps ease cravings for a cigarette?
Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter