While certain strains of marijuana are known to trigger hunger cues, an effect commonly known as “the munchies” (making cannabis great for treating nausea or those with a compromised appetite due to AIDS, chemotherapy or other medical conditions)—new findings are altogether debunking the idea that cannabis causes weight gain for that reason.
Not only do some strains appear to blunt hunger, cannabis could have a direct influence on how our bodies achieve and maintain a healthy weight.
Michigan State University researchers recently reported that regular cannabis users (even those new to cannabis) packed on fewer pounds over a three-year period than non-users. They also tended to weigh less. Roughly 15% of habitual users were obese compared to 20% of nonusers—even when controlling for factors like tobacco use, age, and sex.
The weight difference was consistent: about two pounds per per person, on average, in more than 30,000 people, exhibiting all different kinds of health behaviors.
Whether it’s cannabis’ ability to control our metabolism with blood sugar and/or insulin levels, or some behavioral factor that comes with marijuana use (like a habit of healthy eating to rebound from the munchies), the mechanism is not clear.
But there’s growing evidence that the effect is real. A study published in 2013 in 4,657 adults (out of which 579 claimed to be current marijuana users and 1,975 were former users) found active cannabis users had a 16% lower fasting insulin level, on average, than former or non-users, as well as a smaller waist circumference. Another study from The American Journal of Epidemiology found rates of obesity around a third lower in people who regularly smoked marijuana compared to those who didn’t partake. Similar findings go back decades, in both patient surveys and animal models.
Some say it’s the chemical compounds in cannabis (like tetrahydrocannabivarin, or THCv) that interact directly with our brain’s endocannabinoid system. This system affects both appetite and memory—and it’s actually a brief lapse in our short-term memory that’s most likely causing that well-known, insatiable desire to snack and eat to begin with. But over time, these receptors may become desensitized, making habitual marijuana users less likely to gain weight the same way, say, alcohol drinkers would continue to gain weight over time with heavy drinking.
Other researchers argue that because food triggers the brain’s reward center, overeating is just like a drug—and therefore regular users of cannabis (who have their own high) don’t need to, and therefore don’t, overindulge in the same way. On the contrary, among seasoned users you’re more likely to hear about marijuana’s power to invoke the desire to get out-of-doors, pound out miles at the gym, or stretch and breathe through a yoga practice.
If that all sounds too crunchy, look no further than a pile of research to explain marijuana’s role as weight loss support, including its anti-inflammatory properties (in particular the cannabinoid CB2R), an ability to treat stress and anxiety, and an ability to induce quality sleep. Considering the current thinking around obesity and, yes, inflammation, stress, and sleep—it seems clear that if not directly, medicinal marijuana is great at supporting a healthy lifestyle that leaves you with a movable body, a motivated mind, and enough energy to stick to almost any health goal.
But user beware. While there are various sativa strains ideal for exercise, indica strains are known to cause hunger, sedation and lethargy—in other words, they fully live up to their reputation for bringing on gluttonous behavior, so are best reserved for pain and sleep.
Meanwhile, experts warn that marijuana in any form is far from a diet aid. Until we know more, there are more well established weight management strategies out there. But if you’re interested in exploring medical marijuana for any of the conditions and strategies above, we encourage you to find a doctor in your area, and keep up to date with medical cannabis news by signing up for our newsletter.
Sarah A Lybrand is a writer specializing in lifestyle, health, finance—and fun. She’s written for Bust, Juno, Yahoo, MarketSmiths, and Toast Media, among many others.