Marijuana, the Munchies and Obesity

The evidence is mounting—despite the legendary munchies, marijuana does not make people fat.

Actually, quite the opposite is the case. A new study in the February issue of the medical journal Obesity demonstrated a connection between cannabis use, lower body mass index, lower fat mass and lower fasting insulin levels.

Researchers from the Conference of Quebec University looked at data from the Nunavik Inuit Health Survey of the Inuit aboriginal people in Canada. For this study, data from 786 people were used. Information on body mass, cannabis use, fasting glucose levels and other biological data were collected and analyzed by the researchers.

Diabetes and related metabolic disorders have become a major health problem in the United States and other countries around the world. The disease is characterized by a reduction in the body’s ability to process or metabolize glucose produced by the consumption of sugars and carbohydrates. In simple terms, the pancreas produces insulin which metabolizes glucose. When diabetes develops, the pancreas is not able to efficiently process glucose—either not producing enough, or because the body has developed a tolerance for insulin (causing over-production). In either case, glucose builds up in the body and can cause damage to various organs, such as the eyes and kidneys, as well as results in weight gain. Over time, these effects can be life-threatening.

In this study, “cannabis use in the past year was associated with lower BMI, lower % fat mass, [and] lower fasting insulin [levels.]” These finding are consistent with other research.

The authors believe there are several plausible hypotheses for these results and that further research is needed to explain why this correlation exists.

Cannabis may affect tissue metabolism, and results may be due to differences in the cannabinoid receptors, “most importantly, cannabis smoking may also result in increased energy expenditure.” In other words, it may be that cannabis use stimulates physical activity that helps control weight.

Nonetheless, “there is a growing interest in the endocannabinoid system and its possible influence on appetite, metabolism, and weight.”

In this study, it was the lower body mass that appears to have caused the lower blood sugar levels, but more research is needed on this issue, and “further studies should look into the possibility of acting on the cannabinoid system and the possible effect on weight.”

The American Journal of Medicine published a 2013 study that associated cannabis use with a reduced risk factor for developing Type 2 diabetes, which at the time was characterized by the editor of the journal as “remarkable observations.”

Yes, marijuana is an appetite stimulant. Yes, appetite stimulation can lead to increased consumption of calories, and this in turn can contribute to weight gain.

However, research is indicating that more often than not marijuana use is associated with healthy eating practices, healthy BMIs and reduced vulnerability to diabetes. It seems that cannabinoids help mitigate against some of the risk factors for diabetes and that other aspects of marijuana use mitigate against weight gain.

All in all, research in this area is good news for marijuana law reform. Aside from possible medical applications of cannabinoids in the areas of appetite and obesity prevention, these findings provide further evidence that marijuana can be and is used responsibly. These findings expand the concept of responsible use from the narrow issue of public safety to the larger issue of personal health. Marijuana use is not evidence of an unhealthy lifestyle.

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