A new study found that sales of unhealthy snacks like potato chips and cookies increased in some states after marijuana use became legal. Here’s why that may be bad news for your health.
The munchies — that sudden increase in appetite that often occurs after smoking or ingesting cannabis.
It’s one of the most well-known effects of marijuana use and Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard-educated physician and chief executive officer of inhaleMD, says it’s “absolutely real.”
He pointed out that the effect can be “useful in some patients” such as those who are living with chronic nausea and need to have their appetite stimulated.
However, he acknowledged that (for the most part) getting the munchies is an “unhelpful” effect for the average person.
“There is nothing known to counteract this phenomenon either,” Tishler told Healthline.
That’s one reason some researchers are concerned that increased legalization of cannabis could increase the growing obesity crisis in the United States.
A recent study looked at states that had legalized cannabis and found that junk food sales in those areas had in fact increased after recreational use was legal.
The worry that this could add to the obesity epidemic if cannabis is legalized nationwide is a valid concern.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that about 40 percent of adults in the United States are considered obese, and those rates are higher in areas where corner stores selling chips, cookies, and other unhealthy snacks are more common than those that sell fresh produce.
Legalization and snack sales
The study linking marijuana legalization and increased junk food sales was conducted by Michele Baggio, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Connecticut with a PhD in agricultural and resource economics, and Alberto Chong, PhD, a professor at Georgia State University’s Andrew Young School of Policy Studies.
Their work was published in the SSRN online repository (formerly Social Science Research Network).
They used monthly purchase data from the Nielsen Retail Scanner database that encompassed 2,000 counties in the United States and focused on cookies, chips, and ice cream from grocery, convenience, drug, and mass distribution stores.
Baggio and Chong compared the purchasing trends of those items when Colorado, Oregon, and Washington legalized recreational cannabis use.
Their analysis found legalization led to the following percentage increases: 3.1 for ice cream, 4.1 for cookies, and 5.3 for chips “immediately after recreational marijuana sales began.”
They also found that the increases in ice cream and chip purchases dipped down slightly in the months following legalization, but the increase for cookie purchases didn’t change.
“These might seem like small numbers,” Baggio said in a press release, “but they’re statistically significant and economically significant as well.”
They didn’t include the other states that have also legalized recreational cannabis — Alaska, California, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maine, and even Washington, D.C. — because there wasn’t at least 18 months of purchasing data to consider.
But their research illustrates correlation, not causation.
In other words, it showed two things together but couldn’t demonstrate that one caused the other.
It doesn’t examine other grocery sales — namely healthier snacks like fruits and vegetables. It also doesn’t take into consideration many facts, including the added cannabis tourism states see after legalization that could contribute to the sales of cliche “stoner snacks.”
More people in the area immediately after legalization could help explain the increase in snack shopping because most people on vacation — whether they admit it or not — aren’t as health conscious as they are in their day-to-day lives, especially if they’re on a pot-infused holiday.
Tishler, who has backgrounds in health and cannabis, says other studies have shown that on average recreational users’ body mass index and fasting glucose levels — two indicators of metabolic health — are below non-using Americans.
“This clearly does not prove that cannabis will lead to obesity, but does serve to counterbalance the implication of this study that cannabis legalization would worsen the obesity epidemic in the U.S.,” he said.
In the press release announcing the findings of his research, Baggio says he initially wanted to see if there was a connection between legalization and obesity, but his research didn’t look at obesity rates, only trends that may appear in sales data.
“I’m not an advocate for legalization or not,” Baggio said. “I’m just interested in whether there are unintended consequences to the policy.”
We’ve known the munchies are real for a while
Nevertheless, the medical community has known that cannabis increases a person’s appetite since Johns Hopkins University researchers studied it and published their results in 1985.
In that study, nine men were closely watched as six were given “marijuana cigarettes” while three were given non-psychoactive cigarettes.
Researchers found those who got the cannabis did consume more calories overall, mostly by snacking in between meals.
The snacks those research subjects preferred were often more processed foods higher in salts and fats.
Dr. Mary Clifton, a medical internist in New York City who’s also licensed by the state to provide medical marijuana, says that in both rats and humans, the same thing happens when the cannabinoid receptors — or those that can affect appetite, pain sensation, and mood — are stimulated.
It’s called hedonic eating, and Clifton describes it as “the drive to eat to obtain pleasure in the absence of an energy deficit.”
But, she says, study after study has shown that many people who use cannabis report sleeping better or feel like they’re in a better mood.
“It may be that in the setting of a good mood you may not feel the need to ingest a lot of food to make yourself feel better, or to lift or improve your mood,” Clifton told Healthline. “This general improvement in baseline mood may offset ‘the munchies.’”
Are there healthier ways we can conquer the munchies?
While there currently isn’t a cure for the munchies, there are steps you can take to minimize its impact on your health.
One thing Tishler found of the latest “munchies” study is that the highest percentage increase was for chips and cookies, both of which are crunchy foods.
“Munchies seem to increase desire, not just for food, but for crunchy foods in particular,” he said. “Hence, I advise my patients to have bags of baby carrots on hand, not Doritos.”
Healthy crunchier foods include other fruits and vegetables, which are often available pre-cut in party platters at your nearest grocery stores.
Hummus, lightly salted nuts, or the classic celery with low-sugar extra chunky peanut butter are healthy options as well.
But there are also other choices to consider when balancing your cannabis and caloric intake.
Clifton says if you’re trying to be more conscious of what you’re eating or trying to manage your weight, it’s better to stick to strains of cannabis with a lower amount of THC, as this can help stave off the munchies.
“Modifying your cannabis selection to a CBD prominent strain won’t release your inhibitions as much and won’t stimulate the appetite centers in the brain like THC will,” she said.
The bottom line
Marijuana use can increase appetite — an effect more commonly known as “the munchies.”
Some researchers are concerned that legalization of cannabis nationwide could increase the growing obesity crisis in the United States.
A recent study looked at states that had legalized cannabis and found that junk food sales in those areas had increased after recreational use was legal.
However, the study was limited in size and scope. Alaska, California, Michigan, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine, were not examined as part of the research because there wasn’t at least 18 months of purchasing data to consider.
The study doesn’t prove that cannabis use will lead to weight gain, but it does suggest that legalization of the drug may contribute to the obesity epidemic in the United States.
However, there are steps cannabis users can take to minimize the effects of the munchies, including substituting healthy snacks for unhealthy ones and choosing to use strains of cannabis with a lower amount of THC.