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There’s an old stereotype floating around about cannabis: that it will give you the “munchies.” Cheech and Chong themselves have said, “Generally speaking, when it comes to stereotyping, its’ just not fair to lump a whole group together and say that every individual in the group does this or that. Unless you’re talking about stoners and the munchies, then it’s completely fair. They will eat anything—brand name, homemade, or a hybrid of the two. They even make a quick snack while waiting for the other snack to finish.” But even if cannabis makes people binge eat, it doesn’t lead to the outcome many people assume they will; namely, making you fat. In fact, marijuana has the opposite effect. Studies show regular users of cannabis have lower rates of obesity and obesity-related diseases such as diabetes.
Let’s take a look at how cannabis interacts with the body’s systems to keep users thinner and healthier.
Obesity is common, serious, and costly. A new survey by Gallup finds that the percentage of Americans who are considered obese ticked up to 27.7 percent in 2014—an increase of two percentage points since 2008. The largest uptick over that same period was among the elderly; the percentage of obese people 65 and over increased four percentage points to 27.4, a bad trend for a population that is already more at risk for health problems than other groups. If these rates continue at their present trajectory, half of Americans will be obese by 2030.
Obesity-related conditions include many of the leading causes of preventable death, such as heart disease, stroke, type-2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
The total cost of obesity—which includes medical and non-medical services, decreased worker productivity, disability, and premature death—is estimated at $305.1 billion per year.
Although obesity is more prevalent in some demographics, it is lower in others—including regular users of cannabis. Research compiled from two large national surveys of 52,000 Americans indicates that rates of obesity are lower by roughly a third in people who smoke pot at least three times a week, compared with those who don’t use marijuana at all. The first survey found that 22 percent of those who did not smoke marijuana are obese, compared with just 14 percent of the regular marijuana smokers. The other survey found that 25 percent of non-smokers were obese, compared with 17 percent of regular cannabis users.
Why might this be? The study’s authors point to research on the relationship between appetite and CB1 receptors (which are stimulated by cannabis). While stimulation of these receptors has been noted to increase appetite—which is useful for treating anorexia and wasting caused by cancer or HIV—the overall effect of cannabis appears to help control energy balance. By stimulating our bodies’ homeostatic processes, cannabis limits extreme weight swings.
The authors of the review of two studies on obesity and cannabis use conclude, “This analysis showed that even if cannabis consumption increases appetite, people using cannabis are less likely to be obese than people who do not use cannabis.”
One of the biggest health risks related to obesity is diabetes, which has grown at an alarming rate, more than tripling since 1980. 29.1 million Americans are living with diabetes, and another 86 million people have pre-diabetes.
The disease causes high blood sugar and can result in many complications including heart disease, blindness, kidney failure, stroke, and loss of toes or feet.
Diabetes is also terribly expensive: medical expenses for diabetics are twice as high as other people, and between medical expenses and lost work, the disease puts a $245 billion drain on the economy.
Most cases of diabetes are preventable by losing weight, eating healthy, and exercising. Another possible way to protect against the disease? Cannabis.
One study examined data from 4,657 participants in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2005 to 2010 and found that cannabis users had 16 percent lower fasting insulin levels and 17 percent lower HOMA-IR levels (a measure of insulin resistance) than non-users or former users. This study also noted cannabis users sport smaller waistlines.
The study’s lead author, Murray Mittleman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, told CNN that “the most important finding is that current users of marijuana appeared to have better carbohydrate metabolism than nonusers. Their fasting insulin levels were lower, and they appeared to be less resistant to the insulin produced by their body to maintain a normal blood-sugar level.”
While more research is needed to uncover exactly how cannabis use relates to lower levels of obesity and diabetes, it is clear cannabis interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system to encourage homeostasis. It helps our bodies generate better appetite and energy signals, which changes your behavior and reduces incidents of obesity and diabetes.
If you’re at risk for obesity and/or diabetes, your first line of action is to improve your diet and increase your exercise. But if you find that your food cravings are out of control or your blood sugar spikes frequently, you may want to explore cannabis to help you achieve balance and reduce extremes.