According to a recent Gallup poll, around 54 percent of Americans wish they weighed less. Many of them are willing to try almost anything to drop those extra pounds, judging from the ever-shifting diet trends that sweep the nation every few months (and the boot camp-style exercise programs like Crossfit that have recently risen to prominence).
Until recently, few would have counted cannabis among the tools of the weight loss trade. The “munchies” trope is well-worn at this point, and many people still associate cannabis use with catatonic couch-lazing.
But as new research indicates, it might be time to put those old stereotypes to bed. It turns out that cannabis use isn’t connected with weight gain at all — and in fact, the opposite might be true.
While genetic and metabolic factors, conditions, and temperament play parts in weight gain, lifestyle and eating habits are still the leading causes of becoming overweight. With this in mind, the Mayo Clinic recommends a balanced diet, exercise, and avoiding problem eating situations.
Unfortunately, that seems to be easier said than done (as many people know from experience). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 40 percent of U.S. adults were considered obese in the 2015–2016 period — over 93 million people. Include those who are overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 25–30, and the number jumps to 71.6 percent — 167 million people. As high as these numbers are, forecasts indicate the total will climb even higher by 2030, when trends suggest that 85 percent of the adult U.S. population will be overweight or obese.
Extra weight is shown to lead to increased risk of certain types of cancer, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes. Obesity is named as a factor in the deaths of 100,000–400,000 people in the U.S. each year. It costs an estimated $117 billion per year in direct and indirect impacts — exceeding the societal cost of smoking.
Not on the Mayo Clinic’s list of weight gain preventatives is cannabis — but research has shown that cannabis-using populations are correlated with lower rates of weight gain and overall obesity, as well as a host of other contributing factors.
This research wave started in 2011, with a study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology looking at over 52,000 study participants and concluding, “Even if cannabis consumption increases appetite, people using cannabis are less likely to be obese than people who do not use cannabis.”
More recent studies have built on these findings. A 2019 review of 17 studies which included almost 156,000 people found that cannabis users’ BMI is 7 percent lower than that of non-users on average — and users are 30–35 percent less likely to be obese. More focused studies have shown that cannabis users have lower levels of fasting insulin, smaller waists, and lower levels of cholesterol.
Researchers have some theories as to the chemistry behind the correlation. Although THC stimulates appetite, it also strengthens the body’s ability to maintain homeostasis, which can be disrupted by exposure to the omega-6 fatty acids that are so prevalent in the typical American diet (and contribute to ever-present feelings of hunger).
Other cannabinoids, like CBD, can tame THC’s appetite increase by modifying the way it interacts with the CB1 receptor. CBD has also been shown to work other weight loss tricks, like turning “bad” white fat cells into “good” brown fat cells which can be more easily broken down, as detailed in a 2016 study in the journal Molecular and Cellular Biochemistry.
Another cannabinoid, THCV, is thought to have “anorexic properties” through its antagonist action at the CB1 receptor. Early research has shown promising effects on blood-sugar levels, appetite reduction and weight gain.
Other benefits of cannabis use may also contribute to weight loss, such as the improved mobility that may come with reduced pain and inflammation, lowered stress, and better sleep.
One weakness of the current research is that it lacks specific parameters — i.e. there are no recommended guidelines for how much cannabis to use (or the best ways to use it).
As Diana Martinez of Columbia University Medical Center told Men’s Health, “The human research is based on self-reporting, so there’s no way to know how much they’re taking. To prove the theory requires a study that gives some people THC and others a placebo.”
Smoking is often thought to correlate with weight loss, but according to Weight Watchers this is a myth. Many edibles come with their own caveats — since ingredients like sugar and chocolate are often used to mask the taste of cannabis, even supposedly diet-friendly treats like gummies can pack an unexpected caloric punch (Edipure’s Sour Gummi Bears, for example, contain 110 calories per piece, or roughly 1,100 calories per pack). Tinctures or sublingual strips could theoretically be good alternatives, but there’s no research to back this up.
In any case, it’s a good idea to look for products made from strains that are high in THCV — many African landrace strains fit this bill. However, these can be somewhat tricky to find.
Aside from the usual concerns that go along with cannabis use — common side effects include anxiety, drowsiness, and dry mouth, depending on the dose taken — some researchers are skeptical of the idea that cannabis is a silver bullet for weight loss.
One of the most conclusive studies yet was a three-year, 33,000-participant study out of Michigan State University which again found convincing evidence for the cannabis-weight loss link. However, study author Omayma Alshaarawy cautioned against viewing cannabis as a diet tool.
“There’s too many health concerns around cannabis that far outweigh the potential positive, yet modest, effects it has on weight gain,” she told Science Direct. “People shouldn’t consider it as a way to maintain or even lose weight.”
So while cannabis users might be encouraged that their favorite plant won’t turn them into lethargic leviathans, they still shouldn’t skip the treadmill.