Does Cannabis Use Affect Weight Gain?

There’s an overwhelming generalization that cannabis users weigh more than those who opt not to consume cannabis. Many seem to believe that regular marijuana users are overweight – or that they weigh more than those who lay off the substance altogether. A team of researchers at the University of Michigan aimed to evaluate this common theory – and determine whether there’s any relationship between weight gain and the continual use of cannabis.

Weighing the Factors

The study took place in 2016, and was later published by the International Journal of Epidemiology. Data was complied from the National Epidemiologic Survey of Alcohol and Related Conditions. Researchers examined the data of over 33,000 Survey participants – all of whom were over the age of 18, and classified themselves as users or non-users of marijuana. Researchers then compared and analyzed the changes amongst each respective category. Omayma Alshaarawy, a University of Michigan assistant professor of family medicine, wrote this study and spoke to its findings. Stated Alshaarawy, "Over a three-year period, all participants showed a weight increase, but interestingly, those who used marijuana had less of an increase compared to those that never used, our study builds on mounting evidence that this opposite effect occurs."

The figures also suggested that those who smoke on a persistent basis (measured here as three or more times per week) were less frequently overweight and obese than those who didn’t use cannabis with the same regularity. "We found that users, even those who just started, were more likely to be at a normal, healthier weight and stay at that weight," Alshaasrawy explained. "Only 15% of persistent users were considered obese compared to 20% of non-users." These findings are similar to those of a prior 2011 study, which measured the prevalence of obesity amongst those who did and did not use cannabis, respectively. The figures in this study were derived from both the National Comorbidity Survey-Replication (NCS-R) and – like the 2016 study – the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). The two studies reported obesity rates of 25.3% and 22.% in those who did not use cannabis once in the twelve months prior to the survey. The study also showed that those who reported cannabis use three or more times each week weren’t as likely to be classified as obese. In fact, obesity rates in this subgroup were 14.3% according the NCS-R and 17.2% according the NESARC.

Some studies have suggested that cannabidiol, which is more commonly referred to as CBD, could be an effective weight loss tool. One study, which was later published by Neuroscience Letters v. 490, used a group of male Wistar rats and injected half with cannabidiol. A quarter of the total population was given 2.5mg injections of CBD per kilogram of their body weight daily, while another quarter of the total rats were given 5mg, or double that dose. After fourteen consecutive days of injecting half of the rats, the rats who had received CBD weighed significantly less than the control group who had not consumed any of the substance. While the average weight gain at the end of the study was higher than the beginning for both subsets of rats, weight gain had been slowed by those who consistently consumed of cannabidiol – similarly to the humans who consumed cannabis in the Michigan study.

Food for Thought

The mean weight difference between smokers and non-smokers in the University of Michigan study was somewhat small. A participant who originally weighed 200 pounds, and measured at 5’7” tall, was an average of two pounds slimmer if they smoked cannabis than their peers of the same original proportions who opted not to. While two pounds may not seem like much to take notice of, the slight reduction in weight at the final checkpoint was unusually consistent across several variables and starting sizes.

Why was this the case? Alshaarawy had a few compelling theories. “It could be something that's more behavioral like someone becoming more conscious of their food intake as they worry about the munchies after cannabis use and gaining weight." If you’re expecting the munchies – you may try harder to resist overeating than when the idea is out of your mind. Cannabis itself may also affect the functioning of processes at the cellular level, changing the way receptors process outside stimuli. More research is needed to determine potential causes for the slowed weight gain that correlates with cannabis use.

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