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Food Cravings, Mood, and Nicotine Addiction

Smoking cessation is one of the most common risk factors for weight gain and there is little doubt that in some people food activates exactly the same hedonic pathways as does nicotine and other drugs – this is why for some people, food is very much an addiction.

In fact, previous studies have shown that people who abstain from smoking, not only tend to give in to food cravings more often, but as cravings for cigarettes become more intensified, so do cravings for starchy carbohydrates and fats. These food are also well know to improve dysphoric moods (anxiety, depression, and irritability) that typically accompany nicotine withdrawal.

A new study published this month in OBESITY further illustrates these striking similiarities in food cravings and mood states between obese women and women who smoke tobacco.

In this study, Yanina Pepino and colleagues form the Monell Chemical Senses Center, Philadelphia, PA, USA, assessed food cravings in 229 women who differed in smoking history (i.e., never smoker, former smoker, and current smoker) and body weight (i.e., normal weight, overweight, and obese).

Each subject completed the Food Craving Inventory (FCI), which measures cravings for sweets, high fats, carbohydrates/starches, and fast-food fats, and the Profile of Mood States (POMS), which measures psychological distress.

Both smoking and obesity were found to be independently associated with specific food cravings and mood states (particularly depression and anger). Current smokers clearly craved high fats more frequently than former and never smokers. They also craved starches more frequently and felt more depressed and angry than never smokers, but not former smokers.

From these findings the authors conclude that while cravings for starchy foods and poor mood may be characteristic of women who are likely to smoke, more frequent cravings for fat among smokers is related to smoking per se.

Similarly, obese women craved high fats more frequently than nonobese women and depression symptoms were intensified with increasing body weights.

The overlapping neuroendocrine alterations associated with obesity and smoking and the remarkable similarities in food cravings and mood states between women who smoke and women who are obese suggest that common biological mechanisms modulate cravings for fat in these women.

Unfortunately, while smoking can be addressed by “smoking cessation” programs it is highly unlikely that we will be able to address the obesity epidemic with “eating cessation” programs.

Nevertheless, the recognition that smoking and food cravings interact with mood and involve the same hedonic neuronal pathways, may well lead to treatments that can target both nicotine and food addiction.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. I was reading the book by Dave Kessler called hypereating about hyper-palatable foods (sorry if I’m spelling something wrong, but my server’s slow and I can’t check). And he makes the direct comparison to tobacco. It’s interesting that this is news and yet it’s also interesting that more foods are addictive than I would have realized. My brother has struggled with junk food his entire life, despite family history that strongly urges against it. I never “liked” sugar – I drank regular coke and lemonade growing up, but ice cream, cake, chocolate – traditionally sweet foods were too strong. But the book says that my binge-food, potato chips and specifically kettle chips, are basically the same thing, sugar and fat. The low-GI of potatos acts like sugar, and the salt flavor counteracts my “eww, sweet” reaction. I’ve done well with that addiction, went on a very-low-fat diet when I was 21 and have struggled with why my brother won’t do the same. He’ll try, he’ll behave well at dinner, and then binge on donuts and ice cream in the middle of the night. Which begs the question of why donuts and ice cream are in the house, and I do think he thinks he can have those things in “moderation” where I was conditioned to see it as an addiction that I had to break. If you read the books by the older Pritikin, he had some strong metaphors in that direction, comparing fat to an addictive arsenic.

    Anyway, I wonder if my brother and I are hitting some minor genetic difference, since we seem otherwise very similar (both hypothyroid, e.g.). Will he always struggle with it, or has he just never pushed through to the low-fat, low-sugar side of things? I remember when I was very strict about it, eating something high-fat would actually make me sick. I went on a 4-day backpacking trip eating completely clean and then had chili at a fast food joint on the way back and within half an hour had to ask the driver to pull over.

    I read an ultrarunning blog by someone who used running to break her addiction to alcohol and then realized she’s also running (100 miles/week) to hide her addiction to sugar and had to detox from sugar. She says that a lot of the ultrarunners are people who are battling addictions (to alcohol, generally). So maybe I should be glad my brother’s addiction is to ice cream.

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  2. One more comment: My brother has a 4-year-old son who seems to be struggling with the same issues, and I don’t know how much of that is genetic or environmental. His older daughter, like me, doesn’t like sweets. It frustrates me to watch my brother not set appropriate limits on the son, who won’t eat a normal breakfast but will then sneak sugar when someone’s not looking. My brother, first doesn’t seem to recognize that Gatorade and ketchup are also sugar, but second had no qualms about giving him, at 3.5, a full McDonald’s ice cream cone. “He can go through it” – yes, but should he? The son also seems hyperactive and difficult – result of all the sugar or both caused by some underlying issue?

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  3. This is a very interesting point of view. Indeed, smoking and food cravings generally are caused by a deranged way of life. Sometimes they develop by the cause of stress or anxiety or, better, depression. Nevertheless a good treatment can only be performed in the company of a psychologist.

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  4. Hi,

    First off, I came across your site and wanted to say thanks for providing a great health resource to the community.

    I thought you would enjoy this interactive infographic which details the dangers fast food has on the body. It will be helpful to persuade anyone trying to cut out fast food out of their diet to visually understand the toll it can take on your body:

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    All the best,

    Maegan Jones | Content Coordinator
    Your most trusted ally in pursuit of health and well-being

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