For several decades there has been a lot of discussion about nicotine and its addictive properties, mostly coming from the anti-smoking community. Nicotine addiction causes tobacco consumers to inhale or ingest cancer-causing substances and while smoking is declining in the US, the CDC website reports that Cigarette smoking is responsible for more than 480,000 deaths per year in the United States, including more than 41,000 deaths resulting from secondhand smoke exposure. This is about one in five deaths annually, or 1,300 deaths every day. On average, smokers die 10 years earlier than nonsmokers.
Nicotine has been credited for some positive impacts as well. For instance, it can help sharpen mental focus in patients with various maladies from ADHD to Parkinson’s disease. It is also suspected of helping to curb appetite and is thus thought to offer potential for weight loss. But it’s the addictive nature of nicotine we want to focus on here and the often-overlooked sources of the chemical in many foods. Can nicotine in foods help explain weight gain as well as weight loss?
Mostly in the family
Tobacco, a primary source of nicotine, is a member of the nightshade family of plants (the Solanaceae). In addition to tobacco, the family is also comprised of potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Other foods containing significant amounts of nicotine include okra, some teas, and cauliflower but these are not nightshades.
Nicotine’s addictive nature has been explained in many places including in an article on the Harvard Health website which states,
“Nicotine is addictive because it triggers a reaction in the brain’s reward system, the structures responsible for giving us pleasurable sensations. More specifically, the drug intensifies the activity of the neurotransmitter dopamine in a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. Cocaine and amphetamines do much the same thing; nicotine is tame in comparison. But experts theorize that it may have an added effect because the drug amplifies the brain’s response to the behaviors associated with smoking. In other words, it’s not just nicotine, but the pleasurable sensations it confers on behaviors associated with smoking that make nicotine so addictive.
Most people, including the CDC would readily conclude that smoking is bad for one’s health and stories of the difficulty of breaking the addiction are legion, again from the same Harvard Health article,
“One aspect of addiction is withdrawal, and the symptoms of nicotine withdrawal usually begin within hours and consist of craving, irritability, anxiety, restlessness, and increased appetite. The craving may last for months — even years.
It’s that last symptom, increased appetite, that deserves closer attention because it’s possible that smaller amounts of nicotine in foods may be enough to trigger increased appetite for nicotine containing foods. Table 1 from a New England Journal of Medicine article shows the amounts of nicotine available in a sample of foods. Note the far-right column, Amount of Vegetable Required to Obtain 1 microgram of Nicotine. There’s enough nicotine in foods to be concerning. Twenty pounds of cauliflower contains the nicotine equivalent of one cigarette.
Now, micrograms and nanograms (ng) are small, even tiny, quantities but they aren’t nothing and they are quantities that are sufficient to cause actions in biological systems.
I found an article on nightshade sensitivity that might help explain their effects on some people though the piece does not mention nicotine addiction and increased appetite. This article names 14 signs and symptoms of nightshade sensitivity centered on inflammation including,
· Irritable bowels
· Nerve problems
· Joint pain
· Swelling in the joints
· Leaky gut
· Autoimmunity or chronic conditions
· Trouble breathing (rare, but serious)
· Mouth swelling (rare, but serious)
I haven’t found any direct research on high nicotine foods, appetite and weight problems though. But I have found in my own dieting that it is far easier to manage food intake if I avoid the substances that contain nicotine. In my experience it’s difficult to stop eating foods that contain tomato sauce and ketchup. Add to that the idea of an additive effect of tomato products on other nightshades due to nicotine and you have to wonder. Consider for example, ketchup on French fries; eggplant parmigiana, pizza and pasta all with tomato sauce. If you are salivating it might be the body’s memory of nicotine affecting you. These foods combine nightshades and nicotine with high caloric foods and raise the possibility of a minor addictive moment at a meal and subsequent weight gain.
If you’ve ever eaten more than you should resulting in an uncomfortably full feeling, how often has that feeling resulted from a meal heavy with nicotine? IF you are a former smoker and notice you are gaining weight, are you unintentionally self-medicating with nicotine containing foods?
Nicotine might suppress appetite when in use but, like any addiction, once it is removed the consumer is faced with a choice of getting more or dealing with the withdrawal effects. That’s why we continue to smoke but it’s also a factor in overeating. Dietary nicotine might be self-limiting in that a full person might crave more but often the craving is no match for fullness. However, memory of nicotine exposure might be enough to trigger another eating episode sooner than hunger would dictate. These are classic scenarios for weight gain — eating when not hungry — and major obstacles for weight reduction.
There are many things that trigger hunger, some hormonal for instance, and this is not a scientific paper and should not be used as such. But in my own dieting and weight loss efforts I have noticed that it is far easier to lose weight and keep it off when I don’t have a lot of nicotine in my diet.
Should you give up foods containing nicotine? That would be hard, and it is not strictly necessary. But it’s a wise idea to know what you are putting into your body and its effects. In my own experience it’s easier to lose weight if I limit my exposure to nicotine containing foods. I thought you might want to know that.