As most of us know, marijuana and the munchies go together perfectly, skipping and holding hands as they make their way to the refrigerator for the forty-seventh time. We’ve all been there: the entire bag of Cheetos, the pan of apple pie, the stale box of Cheerios that expired back in the 90’s. To quote Homer Simpson: “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
But, while we know that pot makes us hungry, the reasons why aren’t as obvious. That is, until you take a bite out of the science. Come on, it tastes like chicken.
Mary Jane, the Competitive Eater
When all is said and done, the reason marijuana causes the munchies is actually quite simple: it tricks the brain into thinking you’re starving even if you’ve just eaten. It’s not purely psychological either; your body mimics true hunger through things like weakness, pangs, and cravings. According to a research paper published in Nature Neuroscience, THC is the main reason you’re down with yet another BLT – it has the ability to activate neurons that promote hunger, ultimately fooling the central feeding system of the body.
Whether or not we’re marijuana users, our brains produce their own cannabinoids (not just our brains, but the brains of other mammals and the brains of reptiles and fish). These help control things like memory, pain reception, mood, and appetite. When extra cannabinoids are introduced – through smoking a joint, for instance – they latch onto our natural cannabinoid receptors and produce an overflow of chemicals. This essentially flips the hunger switch back on from its off position. Thus, going to an all-you-can-eat buffet an hour after finishing Thanksgiving dinner suddenly seems perfectly reasonable.
The Smell Factor
In mice experiments, not only was the link between cannabis and hunger found, but a link between how we smell and taste was discovered too. Marijuana altars the cannabinoid receptors in the olfactory bulb, a structure in the forebrain that controls the sense of smell.
In sum, it makes the smell and taste of food more intense, which influences consumption: the stronger the aroma, the more we crave.
While recent research has linked the munchies to the above, longstanding knowledge provides a wider explanation. Marijuana increases dopamine, which is conducive to euphoria.
Many people often eat more when they’re happy – this is one of the reasons why the holidays see us packing on the pounds.
As you find yourself immersed in the gaiety of the season, it’s easy to indulge in another piece of fudge or grandma’s risotto. Of course, you also might not exercise as often: you’re too busy decking the halls and such.
For years, emotional eating was linked to emotions of sadness: it was believed people who were depressed or anxious ate more than those with stable moods. Experts now say the opposite: people gorge on unhealthy snacks when they’re feeling joyful. In other words, if you’re happy and you know it, buy bigger pants.
The Benefits of Binging
Recreational pot users might not like the hunger pangs associated with cannabis, but from a medicinal standpoint, they’re beneficial. Many medical marijuana users are cancer patients, people whose bodies have been ravaged by chemotherapy. Often, they have a hard time keeping weight on because their appetite has disappeared. Extreme weight loss only exacerbates poor health. Cannabis reverses this, helping people fighting cancer consume enough calories to battle on.
While cancer is one of the main diseases where hunger stimulation is beneficial, it’s certainly not the only one. Anyone with an illness linked to weight loss may benefit. This includes people with HIV, depression, thyroid disorders, digestive problems, and even anorexia.
Marijuana and Obesity
With the link between food and cannabis verifiable, it seems only natural that everyone who smokes pot should be walking around with a potbelly. However, this isn’t the case. A study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found an interesting connection between marijuana use and body weight:
Rates of obesity are lower in people who smoke cannabis than those who don’t.
The reason for this isn’t exactly clear cut. Some people argue that variables play a significant role. Religious people, for example, are less likely to smoke pot and more likely to be overweight. Others argue that marijuana users are thinner because they replace high calorie alcohol with no calorie cannabis: ergo, Potheads are skinnier than Port-heads.
Still, this doesn’t rule out a more direct link. For many users, marijuana increases heart rate for several hours after ingestion, theoretically increasing energy expenditure (i.e., the number of calories burned) the same way that a cup of coffee does.
Whatever the reason, a lower BMI is always beneficial. People who maintain a healthy weight are less likely to get heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and several types of cancer (among a slew of other things).
Staying Slim While Getting High
Even with the above, cannabis-induced cravings are a real concern for marijuana lovers, particularly those who are already battling the bulge. Because of this, a little proactivity can go a long way in helping you stay slim even while you get high.
Perhaps the best thing you can do is the old out of sight/out of mind trick. Simply, don’t keep highly caloric items in your cupboard. You’ll be much less likely to ingest pizza and pork rinds, cookies and cake, licorice, and Lemonheads if they’re not readily available. So, fill your kitchen with good-for-you-grub. This doesn’t mean you need to have a kale and spinach sandwich every time you light up, but stock your fridge with fruits and veggies and your pantry with whole grain snacks. If pot gives you a sweet tooth, limit your consumption to things that offer at least some benefit, such as dark chocolate (which is full of antioxidants).
Your taste buds might hate you for hiding that wedge of cheese, going suddenly from buds to enemies. But your health will thank you in the long run.