Could Pot Prevent a Pot Belly? Researchers Get the Skinny on Cannabis

Peter Moore

October 13, 2022

Another stoner stereotype bites the dust: Despite its appetite-boosting effects (aka the munchies), cannabis may actually help keep your weight in check.

According to a study in the journal Health Economics, cannabis users may be less likely to become obese than people who abstain. The study tracked health data from the state of Washington before and after 2014, the year cannabis became widely available there for recreational use.

According to the study: “Marijuana legalization, which allowed for recreational marijuana dispensaries to open, resulted [in] decreases in obesity rates for Washington State.” During the four years after legalization, the state’s obesity rate was 5.4% lower, on average, than it would have been had cannabis not been legalized.

How Did They Figure That Out?

The researchers constructed something called a synthetic counterfactual. “It’s the best approximation of what Washington would have looked like had it not legalized marijuana,” says lead author Raymond March, PhD, assistant professor of applied economics at North Dakota State University.

March and his colleagues assembled a comparable population to Washington state’s by combining data from states that did not legalize during those same four years, including Arizona, Minnesota, Kansas, and New Hampshire.

Hence the “synthetic counterfactual”—what Washington might have looked like had it not legalized. The authors conclude that the state would have had 5.4% more obese people over the “post-treatment period”—the four years after |

legalization—with the attendant medical expenses and human misery from such obesity-related conditions as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and increased risk of early death.

The researchers also compared Washington state’s obesity numbers with the national trend. Both trend upward, but after 2014, Washington’s rate of increase declined significantly.

 

Why Might This Be Happening?

Thomas Clark, PhD, a physiologist with the department of biological sciences, at Indiana University South Bend, addressed one possible mechanism in a 2018 study in the journal Cannabis and Cannabinoid Research. According to the study, “Cannabis use appears to reverse the impact of the modern American diet on health by reducing the effects of an elevated ratio of omega-6/omega-3 fatty acids on endocannabinoid (eCB) tone.”

Clark explains: “The 1970s saw increasing obesity in the United States, and it’s still rising today. It began with the government subsidies of corn- and soybean oil, which alter the body’s physiological regulation of metabolism. When you alter the balance of omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids—which you do by increasing vegetable oils such as soybean oil in the diet—the body’s endocannabinoid system becomes overactive, resulting in weight gain.”

The endocannabinoid system–which promotes homeostasis, or balance, in the body–is regulated by signaling molecules that are mimicked by chemicals in cannabis. Yes, cannabis stimulates appetite, hence its therapeutic use by people with wasting diseases like AIDS, or who are undergoing appetite-killing treatments like chemotherapy. But according to Clark, it also down-regulates the endocannabinoid system, bringing it into balance, preventing weight gain, and theoretically at least, helping the people of Washington slow the tide of weight gain in their state.

Clark, at least, is keeping an open mind. "My research indicates that we should look at these metabolic diseases and their correlation with cannabis use," he says. "There may be a significant health benefit to cannabis use."

If those benefits can be confirmed, cannabis might be one answer to the swelling waistlines and health risks of the American public. As the prominent (volunteer) cannabis researcher Willie Nelson has said: "Marijuana should be recognized for what it is, a medicine." There may in fact be a reason he’s still performing at age 89.

Sources

Raymond March, PhD, assistant professor of applied economics at North Dakota State University

Health Economics. (2022). “Cloudy with a chance of munchies: Assessing the impact of recreational marijuana legalization on obesity.” https://doi.org/10.1002/hec.4598

Thomas Clark, PhD, a physiologist with the department of biological sciences, at Indiana University South Bend

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