University researchers confirm existence of marijuana-induced ‘munchies’

Thursday, May 2, 2019 - 11:40pm

University of Michigan researchers published a report in April disclosing findings from a research study validating self-reported dietary behaviors during cannabis intoxication.

University of Michigan researchers published a report in April disclosing findings from a research study validating self-reported dietary behaviors during cannabis intoxication. Buy this photo
Carter Fox/Daily

University of Michigan researchers published a report in April disclosing findings from a research study validating self-reported dietary behaviors during cannabis intoxication. The research team, led by Jessica Kruger, clinical assistant professor of community health and health behavior at the University of Buffalo, hopes their findings will benefit the world of public health in areas from community awareness to state legislation.

According to the report, the participants completed a brief survey regarding cannabis use and dietary habits and then were asked to choose between two food items. The study was done at the 2016 Hash Bash, Ann Arbor’s annual cannabis decriminalization advocacy event, and more than 80 percent of participants indicated being high during the study in their questionnaire responses.

Seventy-seven percent of survey participants reported making unhealthy dietary choices when intoxicated with cannabis, while only 23 percent reported eating healthy and seven percent claimed to avoid food while high. Additionally, the majority of subjects said they eat more food and choose less healthy food during cannabis intoxication.

Following the survey, the subjects were rewarded with an optional food item, the choices being either a bag of chips or fruit. According to the report, 61 percent chose chips, 32 percent selected fruit and 7 percent rejected the offer.

Daniel J. Kruger, adjunct faculty associate in the Population Studies Center, was a co-author of the research study report. He said the findings demonstrated the existence of “munchies,” which are compulsions to eat driven by cannabinoids — the active ingredients of cannabis.

“Low and behold, we do find that people are more likely to eat unhealthy food when they’re high,” Daniel Kruger said. “Also, they report eating more food and being more likely to eat unhealthy food more so when they’re high than at other times. So, we basically demonstrate that the ‘munchies’ exist.”

LSA sophomore Ryan Halaoui said the existence of the munchies was obvious before, but finding actual research to back common knowledge was quite compelling.

“People are very much showing scientific studies about it when before there was not really any information about it,” Halaoui said.

LSA freshman Jared Criz said it is important for people to know about this research, especially as the recreational use of marijuana was legalized in Michigan this past election.

“Definitely since it’s legal now, and a lot more people are going to use it, people should be aware — or at least know — that weed will increase your appetite,” Criz said. “So, they could keep that in mind and know it’s the weed and try to make healthier choices.”

According to Daniel Kruger, the team’s goal is to make the public aware of their research confirming the inclination towards unhealthy dietary habits during cannabis intoxication in order to get people to take this issue seriously.

“If we’re living in this society where a lot of people are using cannabis legally, then we really have to deal with that in terms of how to protect people (and) how to keep people safe — both individuals and society,” Daniel Kruger said.

Several students, including Halaoui, found humor in the researchers’ choice to include the word “munchies” in the title of the report.

“If this is supposed to go out to people who do smoke, a more appealing name like that would actually make me want to read it more than if it was something more scientific,” Halaoui said. “That would get people to look at it and actually get people to read and understand what the issue is because there obviously is an issue here. It’s just explaining it to people and getting them to care about it.”

In fact, Daniel Kruger said their goal was to draw attention to a serious issue in an amusing way.

“We’re hoping that people will notice it because it’s funny, but at the same time it addresses serious issues,” Daniel Kruger said. “We really want people to take this issue seriously and to try to expand the scope of public health education efforts regarding cannabis use.”

As marijuana was not legal for many years in Michigan, Daniel Kruger said it was more challenging to find people willing to participate in such a study.

“Believe it or not, no one had ever actually done a systematic observation of (intoxicated) people in real life,” Daniel Kruger said. “It would have been so difficult to do. You know, where are you going to find a large group of people who are doing something illegal and are willing to be surveyed?”

Daniel Kruger said Hash Bash was the ideal setting for the researchers to see what dietary behaviors actually looked like in the real world when individuals were intoxicated with cannabis.

“We realized that we had the perfect opportunity at Hash Bash where thousands of people descend on U-M campus and are right there very close to home,” Daniel Kruger said. “In fact, it worked out so well that I was really stunned that no one ever thought of doing (a study actually at Hash Bash) before.”

After seeing Hash Bash for the first time, LSA freshman Ben Averick said he believes it was a well-suited setting for conducting research.

“Hash Bash is a really good spot, because it’s a place where people are comfortable and actually encouraged to smoke,” Averick said. “People are going to be more okay with being stoned in public when they are surrounded by people who are in the same headspace as they are themselves.”

According to Daniel Kruger, though survey studies are widely used by researchers today because they are easy to conduct, especially with online resources, solely using self-reports cannot accurately predict real behavioral outcomes.

“The problem is that the further and further away you get from the actual behavior, the more concern you have that what people report on these surveys isn't going to match up with their actual behavior,” Daniel Kruger said. “So, that’s why we verified it … We had both the survey component and looking at their actual real behavior when they are high and in a naturalistic environment, meaning this resembles the day-to-day activities or the typical activities that our participants would be in.”

Additionally, Daniel Kruger said the legal environment has been changing quickly and dramatically, so most states do not have a full plan for how to implement or regulate these new marijuana policies.

“Governments, not just in Michigan but in other places, are really sort of scrambling to deal with this,” Daniel Kruger said. “It is a huge change that is happening really rapidly and the infrastructure just hasn’t been able to catch up with it. I mean, there’s so many different regulations and other things that need to be created where there really hasn't been much of this in the past.”

Daniel Kruger said his research team wants to reach members of the state government who are in charge of regulating cannabis so policies can be informed by scientific evidence.

According to Daniel Kruger, legal access to cannabis is shifting the field of public health. Therefore, he said public health workers should acknowledge that people will be using marijuana and focus on helping those individuals make healthy choices.

“Now that people can legally access (cannabis), it changes the whole environment,” Daniel Kruger said. “We really have to broaden the public health perspective to say, ‘OK, well, given that people are going to be using cannabis, how do we deal with that? How do we deal with the real and serious issues and risks that come along with cannabis use, and how do we maximize the benefits to health of the individuals who are going to be using it and minimize the costs and harms to society?’”

Daniel Kruger said millions of people in the United States will be experimenting with cannabis, getting high and experiencing the munchies. He recognizes this as problematic because of the obesity epidemic America is already facing. According to Daniel Kruger, the team’s research will guide people toward healthier behaviors. To do this, he said custom-designed research and education are necessary to maximize the health of those who choose to use cannabis.

“(We need to) try to steer them towards healthier foods rather than junk foods and to get out in nature and exercise rather than sitting on your couch and just eating a bag of chips,” Daniel Kruger said. “We’re hoping to move the world of public health along in that direction.”

The majority of public health work surrounding cannabis use is too narrowly focused on prevention, Daniel Kruger said.

“Nearly all of the public health work is sort of stuck in the ‘era of prohibition’ where they just see cannabis as just something that’s entirely negative and they want to stamp it out,” Daniel Kruger said.

Halaoui recognized solving the issue of an increasing number of marijuana users experiencing the “munchies” coupled with the obesity epidemic as challenging. According to Halaoui, raising awareness would be the best course of action.

“I can’t imagine there ever being a law that says ‘if you’re high, you can’t eat at McDonalds,’” Halaoui said. “I’m trying to think if there’s anything that could actually be done about it other than make it illegal again, but that’s still not really going to stop anything, is it?”