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The Real Skinny on Cocaine and Weight

New research suggests that chronic cocaine use may reduce the body’s ability to store fat.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge found that using cocaine may cause “profound metabolic changes,” which can result in dramatic weight gain during recovery. This is a “distressing phenomenon” that can lead to relapse, the study found.

“Our findings challenge the widely held assumptions that cocaine use leads to weight loss through appetite suppression,” said Dr. Karen Ersche, from the Behavioural and Clinical Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cambridge in England. “Rather, they suggest a profound metabolic alteration that needs to be taken into account during treatment.

“Notable weight gain following cocaine abstinence is not only a source of major personal suffering, but also has profound implications for health and recovery,” she said.

“Intervention at a sufficiently early stage could have the potential to prevent weight gain during recovery, thereby reducing personal suffering and improving the chances of recovery.”

The research team, led by Ersche, scanned more than 60 men to evaluate body composition, diets and eating behaviors. Half of the men were addicted to cocaine, while the other half had no personal or family history of drug abuse.

The researchers also measured the men’s levels of leptin, a hormone that plays an important role in regulating appetite and energy use.

The researchers discovered that cocaine users expressed a preference for fatty foods and carbohydrates and also had patterns of uncontrolled eating. Yet even with these fatty diets, they often experienced weight loss, and their body fat was significantly reduced compared to the control group.

Leptin levels were also low in cocaine users and were associated with the duration of the cocaine use, the researchers noted.

A decrease in plasma leptin, paired with a high-fat diet, suggests an impaired energy balance, which typically leads to weight gain, the researchers explained.

The study’s findings suggest that overeating in regular users of cocaine predates the recovery process, but this is disguised by a lack of weight gain. As a result, when cocaine users in recovery discontinue using the drug but continue consuming high-fat foods, they gain weight, the researchers said in the study, which was published in the journal Appetite.

“We were surprised how little body fat the cocaine users had in light of their reported consumption of fatty food,” Ersche said.

“It seems that regular cocaine abuse directly interferes with metabolic processes and thereby reduces body fat. This imbalance between fat intake and fat storage may also explain why these individuals gain so much weight when they stop using cocaine.”

Ersche said that for most people weight gain is unpleasant, but for people in recovery, weight gain goes far beyond an aesthetic concern and involves both psychological and physiological problems.

“The stress caused by this conspicuous body change can also contribute to relapse,” she said. “It is therefore important that we better understand the effects of cocaine on eating behavior and body weight to best support drug users on their road to recovery.”

Ersche said she and her team will investigate more closely the underlying factors contributing to the marked weight gain to develop interventions to better support drug users in recovery.

Source: University of Cambridge

The Real Skinny on Cocaine and Weight

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). The Real Skinny on Cocaine and Weight. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Aug 2013)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.