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Marijuana Munchies Mean Meager Menus

Fruits and veggies give way to chips and dip

MONDAY, June 11, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- Smoking marijuana can bring on a ravenous hunger, but if you get the munchies, skip the potato chip cure and try nibbling on some celery sticks instead.

Don't roll your eyes and sigh just yet. Researchers have found that marijuana smokers eat more calories than non-marijuana users, but they don't eat enough fruits and vegetables. Pot smokers also have a lower body mass index (BMI) than non-smokers, meaning pot smokers are thinner though they drink far more beer and soda and eat more salty snacks.

Advocates of legalizing marijuana say it increases appetite, relieves nausea in people undergoing chemotherapy and fights the extreme weight loss or "wasting syndrome" experienced by some AIDS patients, says Ellen Smit, lead author of the study that appears in the June issue of Public Health Nutrition.

"But we don't know a whole lot about the nutritional status of people who smoke marijuana, or how marijuana might affect your nutritional status," says Smit, assistant professor of social and preventive medicine at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. "We should find this out before recommending [marijuana]."

Smit's study used data from the Third National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES III). Of 10,623 men and women ages 20 to 59 surveyed about their eating habits, 852 had smoked or consumed marijuana at least once in the previous month.

Among marijuana smokers, 541 were "light" users, meaning they used marijuana less than four days a month; 135 were "moderate" users, using marijuana five to 10 days a month, and 176 were "heavy" users, using marijuana 11 or more days a month.

Researchers found heavy marijuana users consumed up to 40 percent more calories than non-users. Paradoxically, non-marijuana users got 34 percent of their calories from fat, compared with 31 percent among heavy users.

Non-pot smokers had an average BMI of 26.6, while heavy pot smokers had an average BMI of 24.7. (BMI is a measurement based on weight and height. A BMI of 30 or above is considered obese; 25 or above is overweight.)

Heavy pot smokers also drank more beer (16 servings per month compared with five for non users), more regular (non-diet) soda (35 servings a month compared with 18 for non-user), chose more salty snacks such as potato chips (13 servings a month compared with nine for non users) and ate less fruit (21 servings a month compared with 25 for non users).

About 70 percent of heavy pot smokers also smoked cigarettes, compared with 29 percent of non-pot smokers.

Overall, while pot smokers' nutritional status was good, "these lifestyle habits could increase their risk for chronic diseases such as heart disease and cancer in the long term," Smit says.

Previous research has shown a third of U.S. residents over age 12 have tried marijuana, the most commonly used illegal drug in the United States.

Forty-five percent of people aged 20 to 50 in the NHANES III survey reported using marijuana at least once, while 13 percent said they had used it 100 times or more. Nearly 9 percent had used the drug in the previous month, and about 2 percent were heavy users.

Jeannette Jordan, a registered dietitian in Charleston, S.C., and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says the new study, like previous studies, finds that marijuana is an appetite stimulant.

However, smoking marijuana doesn't cause a person to crave a particular type of food, such as chips, Jordan says. "They eat what they are accustomed to eating, and a lot has to do with what's available. If they like beer or high calorie snacks, that's what they'll eat."

Wahida Karmally, another American Dietetic Association spokeswoman and an assistant research scientist at Columbia University in New York City, says the study does not show causality between smoking marijuana and eating more calories.

The increase in caloric intake, especially for light or moderate users, could be simply coincidence, Karmally says.

"We cannot really say this dietary pattern is typical of a marijuana smoker. It could just be typical of the general population. We know people are not getting enough fruits and vegetables whether they smoke marijuana or not," Karmally says.

What To Do

For more information on marijuana, visit the National Clearinghouse for Alcohol and Drug Information.

Or check out these previous HealthDay stories on marijuana.

SOURCES: Interviews with Ellen Smit, Ph.D., assistant professor of social and preventive medicine, University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, N.Y.; Jeannette Jordan, R.D. and Wahida Karmally, R.D., both American Dietetic Association spokeswomen; June 2001 Public Health Nutrition
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