A few years ago, most people had never heard of CBD (aka cannabidiol), but today more than half of American adults say they’ve tried a product containing it, according to a 2022 survey of 2,000 Americans conducted for Forbes Health by OnePoll. The compound, one of many found in cannabis and hemp plants, has become a popular addition to gummies, drinks, sprays, and even pet products. What makes it so popular?
“Research indicates that CBD may be effective for decreasing inflammation, pain, anxiety, depression, insomnia, autoimmune and neurological disorders, and other debilitating conditions,” says Janice Newell Bissex, RDN, a holistic cannabis practitioner at Jannabis Wellness and the program director of cannabinoid medical sciences at John Patrick University School of Integrative and Functional Medicine in South Bend, Indiana.
But those aren’t the only reasons people are reaching for CBD. The latest buzz says it may help you eat less and lose weight. Does it deliver? Here’s what health experts want you to know.
What Is CBD?
It’s easy to confuse CBD with cannabis (the plant that marijuana comes from), but they aren’t the same thing. CBD is one of more than 100 compounds known as cannabinoids that are found in cannabis and hemp plants, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. THC (aka tetrahydrocannabinol) is another cannabinoid in cannabis (but not hemp, research shows) — but unlike THC, CBD isn’t a psychoactive substance, so it won’t get you high.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely legal. Because cannabis is still a controlled substance, CBD derived from the cannabis plant is illegal at the federal level, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). On the other hand, hemp-derived CBD is legal in most states. But there are a few exceptions, and CBD laws are continually changing. The best way to know for sure is to check with your state’s health department.
Can CBD Help You Lose or Maintain Weight?
It has long been known that cannabinoids interact with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which plays a role in regulating appetite and metabolism, among other functions. Because of that relationship, researchers have been interested in exploring CBD’s therapeutic use in weight loss and obesity.
So far, however, most of the available research on CBD and weight has been conducted using animals or in vitro studies, not actual humans. Consider claims that CBD helps burn fat, for example. Those are based on a test-tube study that found that CBD may help convert unfavorable white fat into a calorie-burning type of fat called brown fat — in animal cells.
“Animal studies can tell us what to study in humans, but you can’t make a strong conclusion that CBD helps with weight loss based on animal studies,” says Peter Grinspoon, MD, a primary care physician and cannabis specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. “Sometimes animal studies translate to humans and sometimes they don’t, which is why you really have to do the studies in humans to make sure they work.” In general, he says, there are not a lot of great studies that show that CBD promotes weight loss in human beings: “It might make some people gain weight and it might make others lose weight.”
There’s a little more research on CBD’s parent, cannabis. But cannabis contains hundreds of compounds beyond CBD, so they’re hardly equivalent. For example, a study published in 2020 in Diabetes found that cannabis users metabolized glucose more efficiently than nonusers, but it is a huge leap to assume the same holds true for CBD. Right now, the official word from the American Diabetes Association is that CBD is unlikely to improve blood sugar or insulin levels in people with diabetes.
The results of a national three-year prospective study revealed that cannabis users are less prone to obesity than people who don’t use cannabis (in spite of marijuana’s reputation for making people pig out). And a study published in 2019 in the International Journal of Epidemiology found that cannabis users were less likely to gain weight than people who never touched the stuff.
But don’t get too excited, say the study’s authors: “We do not yet have sufficient definitive evidence to answer the ‘why?’ question,” says James C. Anthony, PhD, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at Michigan State University and coauthor of the study. “We would like to see more replications of this inverse association before anyone makes large investments in research on the mechanisms.”
Dr. Anthony isn’t the only expert urging caution. “Right now, marketing claims are soaring high above the actual scientific evidence,” says Dr. Grinspoon. “That’s not to say CBD doesn’t work [for weight loss], but it hasn’t been proven to work as well as people are claiming.”
While there is little evidence that CBD use directly affects metabolism or appetite, it may help with weight control in other ways. “Many people eat more when they’re stressed or in pain or exhausted,” says Bissex. “So, if CBD can help to manage those issues, it makes sense that it may help decrease overeating.”
There is evidence that CDB may help in those situations. A retrospective study of 103 psychiatric clinic patients who were given CBD found that anxiety decreased and sleep improved in the majority of patients within the first month.
“Sleep deprivation has been shown to increase the release of ghrelin, which increases hunger and appetite,” Bissex adds. “By allowing for a better night’s sleep, it’s possible that CBD may thwart this ghrelin release, thereby decreasing appetite.” And if aches and pains are keeping you away from the gym, CBD’s anti-inflammatory action may ease muscle pain and fatigue, so that you can get moving again, per a review published in Frontiers in Physiology in 2021.
Risks or Side Effects of CBD
CBD is safe for most people, but not everyone. For example, if you have low blood pressure, large amounts could make you light-headed or dizzy, says Bissex. And while many people swear by CBD for sleep, some find that it leads to vivid dreams, which may be due to deeper REM sleep, she adds. Other than that, side effects like fatigue, nausea, upset stomach, and loss of appetite are usually mild and short-lived, according to Mayo Clinic — which could make you uncomfortable enough to eat less, but that is not a healthy or recommended strategy. High doses may cause liver injury, according to the FDA. CBD can also interact with certain drugs, especially blood thinners and thyroid medication, reports Harvard Health Publishing. So, if you’re considering trying CBD, talk to your doctor first.
What to Know if You Want to Try CBD for Weight Loss
Despite the buzz online and on social media, CBD experts don’t get the hype. “People ask about CBD for all kinds of things, but weight loss isn’t a common indication,” says Grinspoon.
If you’re still curious, look for the highest quality product available. “Avoid the cheaper CBD isolate products that may be sold at your local gas station or convenience store,” says Bissex. “These lack the synergy of the various components of the plant.” Instead, she recommends organically grown broad- or full-spectrum CBD. “Full-spectrum products contain all the components of the plant, including a small amount (less than 0.3 percent) of THC, while broad-spectrum contains all the components with zero THC,” she explains.
Should you try CBD for weight loss? Not based on the current research, but stay tuned. In the meantime, there are far more powerful, proven weight management strategies — namely a healthy diet and exercise.