What my experience doing both taught me

I first smoked my cigarette when I was sixteen. I smoked my last cigarette 12 years ago. I was morbidly obese when I quit smoking. In spite of several attempts, instead of losing weight, I kept on gaining weight. That will power that helped me quit smoking was somehow elusive when it comes to losing weight.  Then in December of 2019, things started turning around. I found a plan that worked for me and that will power that had gone missing came back roaring. I have since lost over 30 KGs/70 Lb. I have some more to lose to get to my ideal body weight but I know I will get there by end of this year. 

These two have been very different experiences and I always wondered which one would be harder. And thanks to the lockdown, where I am busy doing nothing, I had the time and space to reflect upon it. And here is what I think.

Needless to say these two challenges have sone structural differences and similarities. Let’s break them down.

One behavior Vs Many behaviors: Quitting smoking is mostly about one specific behavior. There may be many preceding behaviors but ultimately, it’s about nor lighting that cigarette. Losing weight on the other hand involves multiple behaviors. Don’t eat a lot of carbs, avoid processed food, don’t eat sweets, eat less, fast, walk, run, lift weights…the list seems endless. Losing weight definitely wins this round on the difficulty scale. 

One time Vs Continuous: Give up smoking and after few months, you don’t have to worry about it. In my case, it took me about 4 months. I don’t have to try anymore. Losing weight means almost a year of hard work and you are still not done. You have to maintain it, always be vigilant. Again, losing weight wins this round

Cravings and Withdrawal symptoms : When it comes to cravings, again it’s a case of one vs many. When it comes to smoking it’s just one type of craving but the intensity of that craving is something else. There are withdrawal symptoms like headaches, anger, shaking and many more. Those are quite vivid even as I write this though I quit smoking 12 years ago. Though there are sugar cravings and others for a specific type of food, you can eat those foods once in a while. Also, I found sugar cravings don’t last more than a couple of weeks. Quitting smoking takes this round rather easily.

Liking Vs Wanting: There is some very interesting research in the filed of neuroscience that suggests that there are different brain circuits that deal with wanting and liking.  

“We typically want what we like, and like what we want,” Kyle Smith, the researcher said. “But these results suggest that wanting and liking are processed by distinct brain circuits and may not always go hand-in-hand.” (Source: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070302115232.htm)

According to these researchers, if these two come together, then the motivation can be powerful. But there are somethings we want but don’t like. How does it apply in the context of quitting smoking and losing weight? Let me illustrate. When I first inhaled the smoke from a cigarette, I hated it. The after taste and if a cigarette is lousy and your breath stinks. I never liked the idea of smoking but I badly wanted to smoke. Things are very different when it comes to say Belgian chocolate ice cream. I want it. I like it. There is no dichotomy as liking and wanting go together. It’s a powerful reward mechanisms and harder to beat. However, I don’t like being fat. Every time I look in the mirror or try to tie my shoe laces, it sucks. There is no such feeling when it comes to smoking. So, I call this round even. 

Social shaming: The real impact when it comes to minimizing smoking started happening when the focus shifted from risk to self to risk to others. With it came no smoking zones, and subtle social shaming.. It was no longer cool to smoke. While there is fat shaming, it is frowned upon. You could just get cancelled for fat shaming.  Cosmopolitan put an obese woman on their cover. And some crazies started promoting nonsensical information that being fat is good for you. Anyways, when it comes to social shaming the motivation to quit smoking is much higher than losing weight.

Vulnerability and Self control: With weight loss, some cheating is allowed. No such luck with smoking. Plus, if you have a drink once in a while, your self control nosedives. And if your smoker friends are around you, it gets doubly hard. Coffee, Alcohol, Cold weather, a full meal..so many triggers for smoking. Almost all my prior attempts at quitting smoking failed because of a drink. 

Risks and Rewards: Smoking and Obesity both come with several health risks. Apparently, Obesity is way worse according to this analysis (https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB4549.html). On a subjective level, the dangers of smoking seem more vivid: Cancer, COPD, Heart disease seem more direct and imminent, may be due to all the campaigns. As far as rewards go, quitting smoking doesn’t seem as rewarding when compared to losing weight. Sure, your appetite gets better, food tastes better but the joy of seeing lower numbers on that scale and throwing bigger size clothes and buying lower sized clothes is something else. Also, people notice weight-loss and generally complement. This is rarely the case with smoking since it is considered a bad habit and something immoral. The scale tips towards losing weight.

So, which one is harder: Quitting smoking and Losing weight consistently figure in the top 10 new year resolutions, year after year, means they are both bloody hard. For me personally, after discounting the recency factor, quitting smoking seems a little bit more difficult than losing weight, just a little bit harder. The motivation and will to succeed seems to come from very different places and I wish luck and strength to those who are attempting either of these. And for those attempting both, my suggestion is pick one.

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