Even if you don’t smoke weed, you’ve probably heard of at least one side effect of using cannabis: the “munchies”—an intense hunger that seems to only be satiated by pizza rolls, potato chips, cookies, and any variation of processed, unhealthy food. And by that logic, regular marijuana use should make you fat, right?
But like many misconceptions about cannabis, this is another one that isn’t so cut and dry. Weed doesn’t necessarily make you fatter. And while academic studies of the drug are still only beginning, we do know that the relationship between marijuana and bodyweight is more complicated than pizza rolls.
Here’s a look at how marijuana affects weight gain and loss.
The skinny on pot
Despite the stereotype that stoners are lazy and constantly eating, their bodies tell a different story. Several recent studies have found that daily marijuana use is associated with a lower BMI, smaller waist circumference, and lower fasting insulin levels. Some marijuana growers are marketing strains specifically for weight loss. Does that mean cannabis is the secret to losing your love handles? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
“Most observational studies of cannabis use and diabetes or obesity have shown a correlation between cannabis use and lower risk of obesity or diabetes. However, correlation does not imply causation,” says Jeff Chen, M.D., M.B.A., the director of the Cannabis Research Initiative at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.
Many lifestyle factors could explain this correlation. “For example, perhaps people who are obese or diabetic avoid things like cannabis because of concerns about its health effects,” Chen says. (If that were true, it would diminish weed’s apparent role in helping people stay thin.) “Alternatively, people who consume cannabis may tend to exercise more or eat healthier,” he explains. (If that were true, it would support the notion that weed helps people lose weight.)
Either way, it’s much too early to say that marijuana is the reason why cannabis users are thinner. So far, broad sociological studies on weed use merely indicate correlation, rather than causation.
The complex world of cannabinoids
Marijuana has hundreds of cannabinoids, but the two superstars—THC and CBD—are responsible for the high that recreational users love and the potential medical benefits that those with prescriptions need. “Our bodies naturally produce endocannabinoids, and they play a complex role in fat storage and energy metabolism,” Chen explains. “Cannabinoids like THC and CBD exert their effects, in part, by mimicking endocannabinoids and acting upon cannabinoid receptors throughout the brain and body.”
Even more interesting: The two compounds produce effects that are seemingly at odds with one another. CBD has been found to counteract the high that THC causes. THC can increase anxiety levels, while CBD has been shown to reduce anxiety. And their effects on our appetites differ as well. “We know THC is an appetite stimulant in human studies, but CBD is an appetite suppressant in animal studies,” Chen says.
Weed for weight loss and diabetes management?
Unfortunately, weed is not the answer when it comes to weight loss—not yet, at least. “While these studies are certainly interesting, I would not recommend it for that purpose—after all, there are contradictory appetite stimulating and suppressing effects of the compounds in cannabis,” says Chen. Even more troubling, cannabis can have the opposite desired effect in some cases. “There have been studies showing a correlation between cannabis use and an increased risk of prediabetes, which is a state where blood sugar is abnormally high and often leads to developing diabetes.”
Furthermore, Chen says, "there are a few studies showing a correlation between using cannabis and having a heart attack in the timeframe immediately after cannabis use. This is especially dangerous for individuals who are obese or diabetic and are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease and heart attack.”
But that doesn’t mean marijuana doesn’t have potential as a weight-loss aid. And with laws around marijuana loosening, researchers have new opportunities to explore its medical applications. “Research on cannabis and cannabinoids has been hindered for the last half century because they are all classified as ‘schedule 1 drugs,’ alongside drugs like heroin,” Chen says. “This makes research activities immensely difficult and restricts the federal funding eligible for this research. Moreover, the endocannabinoid system was discovered fairly recently and we are still uncovering its complex role in health and disease.”
Most medical experts have similar conclusions when discussing cannabis: There appears to be some promise, but we need more research. Chen stresses that while these studies don’t do much to prove that marijuana is the key to weight loss and diabetes treatment, they inspire more research—and that’s a good thing. In one study, type-2 diabetics who were treated with the cannabinoid THCV were found to have lower blood sugar and improved pancreatic function. Now researchers and pharmaceutical companies are further investigating whether this cannabinoid can aid in weight loss and treat diabetes.
Before you light up
There’s simply no silver bullet when it comes to rapid, lasting weight loss. Losing weight requires discipline, dedication, and time. Still, anyone who uses pot for medical or recreational purposes can rest assured that marijuana won’t make them fat. But, like all things related to wellness, everyone is different. And if you’re reaching for the ice cream and cheese puffs every time you light up, you may have to put down the pipe to lose weight.