Whether for medical or recreational use, historically those of us who use cannabis have been stigmatized for being lazy, unmotivated, and physically unfit. There are reasons for this, stereotypes aside. As research (and plenty of anecdotal evidence) suggests, the cannabis plant’s appetite-stimulating properties—aka “the munchies”—are real.
But stereotypes notwithstanding, what are we to make of a new study published in the International Journal of Epidemiology which suggests that, on the whole, cannabis users tend to be less overweight or obese than those who abstain?
The recent study isn’t an outlier. Instead, it corroborates several earlier papers indicating that cannabis users tend to be more trim—and even have lower cholesterol levels—than non-users. What’s the straight dope? As you might expect, the story is complicated. But we’ll share what we know about the science behind this phenomenon. Spoiler alert: Appealing though it may sound, the jury is decidedly out regarding the use of cannabis for weight loss.
Cannabis for Weight Loss: The Evidence
When it was published in the spring of 2019, the recent University of Michigan cannabis and weight loss study caused quite a stir, but it shouldn’t have. Two surveys from 2011 indicated much the same conclusion. What’s more, a 2013 paper published in the American Journal of Medicine found that cannabis users typically had trimmer waistlines than non-users. What’s more, a 2006 study indicated that cannabis use correlated with lower cholesterol levels. While cholesterol isn’t associated with weight in and of itself, it’s an indicator of general cardiovascular health, a major contributing factor associated with weight gain or loss.
But while there’s an abundance of evidence indicating that, contrary to expectations, cannabis use is linked with lower weights and an overall healthier BMI (body mass index), the question of why this is true remains elusive. Here’s what some researchers think.
Cannabis for Weight Loss: Potential Causes
One of the most intensive areas of study is also the most obvious: the gut. Because it does so much more than simply digest our food, it’s described by some clinicians as “the second brain” for the crucial role it plays in our health. It’s also the site of many interactions between our bodies and cannabis compounds such as THC, the principal cannabinoid or “active ingredient” in the cannabis plant.
In one rodent-based study, mice were fed a high-fat diet to induce weight gain and given regular doses of THC. When compared with mice given no THC or a low-fat diet, the obese mice given THC lost weight and body mass. Researchers theorize that changes in the ratios between different strains of gut bacteria may be a significant factor, especially given that obese individuals tend to have a higher endocannabinoid tone—or higher levels of endocannabinoids and their receptors—than leaner individuals. In other words, THC could be playing an outsized role in the management of weight and fat proportion in those who are overweight.
Cannabis for Weight Loss: Best Practices
This in turn suggests an obvious weight-loss strategy: Consuming cannabis. Not so fast, say researchers. The mechanisms behind weight loss are both complex and not fully understood. And because every drug interaction spurs other side effects, both beneficial and less desirable, it’s a little too early to begin prescribing cannabis for weight loss. Scientists point out, for instance, that cannabis may trigger mania-like episodes in those predisposed towards certain mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
Until we know for certain how cannabis affects our weight and body mass, we recommend sticking with tried and true methods for maintaining overall health: Regular exercise, a healthy diet, and an awareness of the whole body, rather than a narrow focus on reducing weight at the expense of your overall health. Until then, consider cannabis’s potentially positive impact on weight as an added perk of this fascinating and ever-surprising all-natural medicine.