Eating on impulse: The relation between overweight and food-specific inhibitory control


  • Disclosure: The authors declare that they had no conflicts of interest with respect to their authorship or the publication of this article.

  • Author contributions: Katrijn Houben designed the study, performed the statistical analysis, and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to and have approved the final manuscript.



Consistent with the idea that impulsivity increases vulnerability to temptations of tasty high caloric food, less effective response inhibition is associated with overeating, overweight, and obesity. However, inefficient response inhibition mainly affects eating behavior when strong motivational urges to consume palatable food are simultaneously present. This study, therefore, examined whether overweight is associated specifically with inefficient response inhibition of food-related responses rather than with a general response inhibition deficiency.


Eighty-seven female participants (age: M = 26.17, SD = 10.9; body mass index (BMI: kg/m2): M = 22.28, SD = 4.34, range 13.86-39.86) performed both a Stop-Signal task with general stimuli to measure general response inhibition ability, and a Stop-Signal task with food-related pictures to measure ability to inhibit responses to food pictures.


As expected, a higher BMI was associated with decreased inhibitory control over food-related responses. There was no association between BMI and general response inhibition.


Overweight is not characterized by a general tendency to react impulsively, but instead by impulsive responding toward palatable food. The implication is that weight loss interventions need to focus on decreasing food-specific impulsivity rather than on reducing general impulsivity.