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It is generally accepted as a given that people who smoke marijuana usually get carbohydrate cravings as soon as they begin to feel high. Scientists however, have found that they are less likely than people who do not smoke marijuana to become obese.

Pot Smokers Get the Munchies, But Don't Pack On the Pounds

The French research team, led by psychiatrist Yann Le Strat, studied data collected from two surveys of over 52,000 people conducted by epidemiologists in the United States. They found that just 14 to 17 percent of patients who admitted smoking marijuana three times or more a week were obese, compared to 22 to 25 percent of people who said that they had not smoked pot in the previous 12 months.

Initially the researchers thought they had made a mistake, Dr. Le Strat told Reuter's Health. But after reviewing their data several times, the French researchers concluded that pot smokers indeed are less likely to be obese than those who abstain. But how can something that gives you the munchies double as a diet aid?

Why Marijuana Causes the Munchies

When marijuana is lit, it releases a variety of compounds including some neuroactive chemicals known as cannabinoids. There are over 85 different cannabinoids in marijuana, and they interact with the human body in at least two different ways:

  • Cells with cannabinoid receptor type 1 are found in the hippocampus and limbic system of the brain. When these brain cells bind to cannabinoids in pot, they "short circuit" the nerve impulses that inhibit behaviors generated in the hippocampus and limbic system. When the inhibitor neurons are shut off, impulses for certain kinds of behavior are stronger, including those for oral satisfaction. In marijuana smokers, this usually involves smoking even more pot and eating sensually satisfying food that has carbohydrate, salt, and crunchiness. There are also cannabinoid receptor type 1 receptors in the sex organs, which also reduce nerve impulses there.
  • Cells with cannabinoid receptor type 2 are found in the immune system. Created in the spleen, these cells fight infection and disease by generating inflammation. When cannabinoids from marijuana bind to these cells, they produce less inflammation.

The best known cannabinoid in marijuana is tetrahydrocannabinol, abbreviated THC. Its action on cannabinoid receptor type 1 cells in the brain is to reduce sensitivity to pain. It also acts on cannabinoid receptor type 2 cells to stop inflammation. Delta-8-tetrahydrocannibinol (Δ8-THC) and delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (Δ9-THC) mimic the action of a brain chemical called anandamide, its name taken from the Sanskrit word ananda, meaning "bliss" or "delight."

Anandamide is a chemical you probably never heard about, but without it, you would never have been born. The first task of anandamide is to help the fertilized egg implant itself into the womb. Throughout life, the body continues to make anandamide from a combination of lecithin, which you get from eating your veggies, and arachidonic acid, which you get from eating foods that are "bad" for you, such as salami and fried eggs. After birth, anandamide activates a part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens, making sugary foods more satisfying.

There are many other chemicals in marijuana, but these three explain the munchies. THC switches off sexual response but also switches off inhibitions for other kinds of pleasure. Anandamide makes munchies, especially sugar-coated munchies, even more delicious. It also makes eating foods that contain vanilla more pleasurable—and vanilla is added to almost all processed foods in amounts your brain can detect even if your taste buds cannot.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Sinnayah P, Jobst EE, Rathner JA, Caldera-Siu AD, Tonelli-Lemos L, Eusterbrock AJ, Enriori PJ, Pothos EN, Grove KL, Cowley MA. Feeding induced by cannabinoids is mediated independently of the melanocortin system. PLoS One. 2008 May 21,3(5):e2202.
  • Photo courtesy of jonahgs on Flickr: