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Eating It Up: Cannabis vs. Metabolic Syndrome

By Tanya Davies

A study on metabolic syndrome has surprising results for cannabis users

It’s a running joke, but also well documented in the science field, that after consuming cannabis, you get a case of the “munchies.” You would assume that this extra food would lead to weight gain, a larger waist and overall worse health. However, a study from the Miller School of Medicine at the University of Miami says otherwise.

Titled “Metabolic Syndrome Among Marijuana Users in the United States: An Analysis of National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey Data”, the study, published in 2016 in the American Journal of Medicine, found that marijuana users have a lower rate of metabolic syndrome than non-users. What does this result mean?

First, before we take a closer look at the study, a quick explanation of your metabolism: It is the process by which your body converts the food you eat and drink into energy that your body uses to function.

Now, a quick primer on metabolic syndrome: Metabolic syndrome is a group of risk factors, such as increased blood pressure, high blood sugar and excess fat around the waist that, when they occur together, are linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

If you have only one of these conditions, it doesn't mean you have metabolic syndrome. But, any of these conditions can increase your risk of serious disease. Having more than one of these might increase your risk even more.

Person measuring waist stomach health metabolism

Photo by Gesina Kunkel

For the study, researchers looked at data from 8,500 American adults, aged 20 to 59, who participated in National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys from 2005 to 2010. Participants were divided into three groups: marijuana non-smokers, previous smokers and current smokers. Researchers then classified survey participants as having metabolic syndrome if they had more than three of the following symptoms: elevated fasting glucose levels, triglycerides, systolic or diastolic blood pressure, waist circumference, or low HDL cholesterol.

The key finding? That current marijuana users were less likely to have metabolic syndrome than the other participants.

“We found that 13.8 percent of those who currently smoked (marijuana) met the criteria for metabolic syndrome, compared with 17.5 percent of previous smokers and 19.5 percent of non-smokers,” explained Dr. Denise C. Vidot, lead author of the study.

Other findings included:

  • Men who currently smoked marijuana had smaller waist sizes than non-smokers.

  • Younger participants who were current marijuana users were 54 percent less likely to have indicators of metabolic syndrome than non-users.

What does this mean for you? Nothing is conclusive yet. According to Dr. Vidot, the next step is to look at how diet, exercise and lifestyle factors vary among marijuana users and non-users.

However, the findings are important as marijuana becomes legal in Canada, “and we [...] face multiple epidemics of obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes,” said Dr. Vidot. “It is important to understand both the health risks and benefits of this substance.

Tanya is a Toronto-based editor and writer who specializes in health-related content.

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