We’ve all seen cannabis users in iconic movie or TV scenes reach for a packet of chips, a meat pie, or dial up a pizza just as soon as they’ve put down their bong or joint. This craving for sweet, fatty, satiating foods is more commonly known as ‘the munchies’ and we are starting to know a little more about them.
A recent study published in the prestigious journal ‘Nature’explains hunger pangs activate the CB1R receptors of the brain (cannabinoid receptors), the same receptors that tell someone they are hungry. At the same time, a bunch of nerve cells called ‘POMC neurons’ are also firing when someone uses cannabis. These neurons are typically responsible for sending the ‘I’m full now’ signals. But when cannabis is consumed, they actually do the opposite and promote hunger. So there are two forces flooding the brain telling it to eat, and little to let it know when it’s full. The study author describes it as: “like pressing the car’s brakes but hitting the accelerator instead”.
So does that mean all cannabis users are overweight?
Well, strangely, not really…
Despite heavy cannabis users eating up to 600 calories more per day than those who have never used the drug, some population level studies indicate cannabis users have lower Body Mass Indexes (BMIs) than non-users and lower levels of obesity, even when other factors like tobacco smoking are taken into account. Other studies found a smaller waist circumference and lower fasting insulin levels among regular users.
Ultimately though, there are likely a lot of factors that contribute to weight gain or loss in each of these studies, and not all confounding factors have been accounted for in the data analyses. For some cannabis users, the munchies means packing on the pounds, while for others it has little effect. It may also affect activity levels which are also a hunger stimulus.
Why don’t some people put on weight after eating all those delicious Doritos?
There are a few schools of thought on this:
1. Many cannabis users, especially in Australia, mix their weed with tobacco. Typically users say they prefer the taste or it works out to be more economical for them this way.
Tobacco is known to be an appetite suppressant, that is, people feel less hungry when they smoke it. So the added tobacco could be explaining the weight regulation, rather than the cannabis itself. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would recommend people take up smoking in order to lose weight. Those who mix tobacco with their cannabis are at a real and obvious risk of becoming addicted to nicotine – and will often take up smoking cigarettes in addition to their cannabis habit.
2. In countries where cannabis is prescribed for medical reasons, it is often recommended for people with cancer, AIDS or other diseases that benefit from appetite stimulation to gain weight. These patients would have very low BMIs to begin with and consequently would be less likely to hit any obesity measures even with an increase of calories in their diet.
3. The brain is a clever organ and is not fooled forever by the CB1 receptor’s hunger signals. It is possible it just adjusts to these signals, at least for frequent cannabis smokers, and regulates appetite accordingly.
4. Another theory is that despite the high caloric intakes of those experiencing the munchies, they may subconsciously compensate for their binges by eating less through the rest of the day. If someone smoked regularly each night and then ate a pizza and a gelato, they may find they are eating only a small breakfast and lunch and leave their main food intake for after each smoking session.
All-in-all there is still so much to learn about cannabis, and how it affects weight – because it can seem to have completely opposite effects on people in different situations – it’s yet another of those areas still being explored. We can’t say definitively that using weed makes you lose weight, or vice versa! So for the moment, the only effective way to lose weight remains a healthy diet and exercise!