Cannabis has long been heralded as an enemy of the dieter. THC has a reputation for making people hungry (thus facilitating extra consumption of calories), making people lazy (and more likely to ride their couch cushions instead of a bike), and making people panicked (the world’s ending, so eat that extra slice of pizza!). But, despite the idea that pot leads to obesity, what does science say? It might be different than you think.
Cannabis’s Effect on Obesity in Mice
A study conducted in Canada found that cannabis actually has the potential to treat obesity. To determine this, researchers fed a group of mice a high-fat diet with daily THC, a group of mice a lean diet without THC, and a group of mice a high-fat diet without THC. What they discovered was that those on the lean diet and the high-fat diet with THC averaged no weight gain while those on the high-fat diet without THC experienced a 20 percent increase. Researchers also monitored the intestinal flora in the mice and found that daily THC administration kept the types of bacteria linked to obesity under control.
While this is good news for the rodent community, with THC allowing mice to stay thin enough to fit into their holes, what about humans?
It turns out people who use pot regularly are less likely to be obese as well
The theory behind this lies in cannabis’s ability to possesses a protective effect against high levels of certain intestinal bacteria. This means cannabis may be an operative form of treatment in those already fighting the battle of the bulge.
The Results Are In
A study published in the December 2014 edition of Obesity magazine further compounded the idea that cannabis lowers weight. To reach this conclusion, scientists gathered data from 786 Inuit adults and found that marijuana use was frequent: 57 percent of those surveyed imbibed. They found that those who did had a lower body mass index (BMI), a lower percentage of fat mass, lower amounts of insulin in their blood when fasting (which is linked to a lower rate of diabetes), and lower insulin resistance (which is also linked to a lower rate of diabetes).
Yet, when controlled for BMI, there wasn’t a huge difference in the effects of insulin on those who used cannabis and those who did not, leading researchers to conclude that insulin was only indirectly influenced by pot:
BMI influenced insulin, but cannabis influenced BMI
The relation between the gut and ganja is backed by other research as well. A study published in the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics sampled over 13,000 people who consumed cannabis every day. They found that women who smoked or ingested pot had BMIs 3.1 percent lower than nonusers, while men had BMIs 2.7 percent lower.
The National Institutes of Health reports similar findings: they attest that studies conducted within the general population consistently indicate that users of marijuana tend to be thinner than those who don’t regularly partake. In these studies, the reasons were more theoretical and vague than the research above. Some possibilities include: marijuana users are more likely to take other drugs (like cocaine which is linked to weight loss) or a possible competition between food and drugs for the same reward site in the brain. The concept that pot users drink less alcohol (ultimately consuming a reduced number of calories) is also possible. Finally, they surmised that the effects of marijuana may very well be a function of initial weight status: in short, cannabis is a metabolic regulatory substance that increases weight in individuals who need to pack on the pounds, but not in those who are at normal weights or overweight.
Why this Matters
Statistics frequently reinforce the one in three rule: one in three Americans is obese (technically, it’s slightly more at 35.7 percent).
Around one in 20 have extreme obesity while nearly 75 percent of those living in the US are overweight. Obesity is similar between men and women.
Clearly, this isn’t good as obesity is tied to all kinds of health issues. It’s linked to those that are deadly (things like heart disease and cancer) as well as things that reduce the quality of life (such as arthritis). While everyone knows that being overweight isn’t beneficial to longevity, we continue to grow as a nation, but why?
There’s a few different reasons. One of these is portion size. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average American ate 20 percent more calories in 2000 than they did in 1983 (which translates to a 20 percent increase in weight). Part of this has to do with the meat industry: it’s boomed in the last few decades. While another factor is fast food: it’s cheap, it’s convenient, and it might be lousy for our health but it’s great for our taste buds.
Advertising and marketing play a role in obesity as well. Many companies sell their products under the guise of nutrition when, in reality, their food has tons of bad-for-you ingredients (but it has one piece of kale, so it’s fine!). Smoothies are a perfect example of this: sure, some contain nutritious elements, but many are highly caloric and laden with sugar too. The high calories aside, anything packed with sugar disrupts natural metabolism.
Of course, a sedentary lifestyle is partly to blame. Less jobs require physical labor than ever before and, with technology, people can get more done with less effort. Even the remote control prevents the physical activity of getting up and changing the channel. Technology is a large reason obesity is so common in the young – they’re happier playing video games than climbing trees; they’re more likely to get carpel tunnel than scrape their knees. Technology has surely improved our lives, but it’s also made us fatter – we now know The Jetsons was fictional since everyone maintained a normal weight despite having machines to brush their teeth.
Cannabis can’t stop all of this, but it might help. Case in point: Boulder, Colorado. A town well known for pot is known for its thinness too: with an obesity rate of 12 percent, it’s repeatedly one of the skinniest cities in the country.