The right diet for quitting

Special to The Times

"Giving up smoking is easy," claimed Mark Twain. "I've done it a thousand times." Fortunately, the average smoker is able to quit smoking after three or four attempts -- and many will begin their efforts in the new year.

Although nicotine patches, hypnotism and acupuncture may increase a smoker's odds of successfully quitting the habit, what you eat -- and when -- can help ameliorate symptoms of nicotine withdrawal, including irritability, depression, insomnia and weight gain.

It is important, for example, to start the day with some carbohydrates that are slowly digested, such as whole-grain breakfast cereals. Studies have shown that many smokers tend to skip breakfast. When you don't eat breakfast, your blood-sugar levels may dip by mid-morning, making you feel irritable. If you're a smoker, you may have calmed these midmorning jitters by having another cigarette.

If you're trying to quit smoking, however, another drag isn't an option. The combination of low blood sugar and the stress of nicotine withdrawal can be too much to handle. A good strategy, if you must skip breakfast, is to try a midmorning snack, such as dried apricots, apples or pears, to maintain your blood sugar levels. These carbohydrate-rich foods, along with others, such as pasta and pita and rye breads, are also needed by the body to make serotonin, a chemical in the brain that is known to improve the mood. Studies have found that nearly half of smokers are more prone to depression than nonsmokers, a problem that can be heightened by efforts to quit the habit.

Protein-rich foods that contain a good amount of the amino acid tryptophan (a building block for the production of serotonin) can also be helpful. They include turkey, chicken, pork, pinto beans, red kidney beans, peanuts, mackerel and sardines. Protein may also be helpful at maintaining alertness.

At night, it is important to choose foods and drinks that relax the body and mind. This is especially important for ex-smokers because about one in four people who try to quit smoking experiences sleep problems. Sipping hot drinks, such as chamomile and valerian teas, are particularly good choices because they contain gentle sedatives that can aid in sleep.

Weight gain is a top concern of ex-smokers. Nicotine is known to physically suppress appetite and to raise the metabolic rate slightly.

Snacking on low-calorie foods, such as raw vegetables and fruit, is an effective way of combating hunger pangs while resisting the temptation to calm your jitters with high-fat snacks.

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