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Relationship between impulsivity, uncontrolled eating and body mass index: a hierarchical model



Impulsivity increases the risk for obesity and weight gain. However, the precise role of impulsivity in the aetiology of overeating behavior and obesity is currently unknown. Here we examined the relationships between personality-related measures of impulsivity, Uncontrolled Eating, body mass index (BMI), and longitudinal weight changes. In addition, we analyzed the associations between general impulsivity domains and cortical thickness to elucidate brain vulnerability factors related to weight gain.


Students (N = 2318) in their first year of university—a risky period for weight gain—completed questionnaire measures of impulsivity and eating behavior at the beginning of the school year. We also collected their weight at the end of the term (N = 1177). Impulsivity was divided into three factors: stress reactivity, reward sensitivity and lack of self-control. Using structural equation models, we tested a hierarchical relationship, in which impulsivity traits were associated with Uncontrolled Eating, which in turn predicted BMI and weight change. Seventy-one participants underwent T1-weighted MRI to investigate the correlation between impulsivity and cortical thickness.


Impulsivity traits showed positive correlations with Uncontrolled Eating. Higher scores in Uncontrolled Eating were in turn associated with higher BMI. None of the impulsivity-related measurements nor Uncontrolled Eating were correlated with longitudinal weight gain. Higher stress sensitivity was associated with increased cortical thickness in the superior temporal gyrus. Lack of self-control was positively associated with increased thickness in the superior medial frontal gyrus. Finally, higher reward sensitivity was associated with lower thickness in the inferior frontal gyrus.


The present study provides a comprehensive characterization of the relationships between different facets of impulsivity and obesity. We show that differences in impulsivity domains might be associated with BMI via Uncontrolled Eating. Our results might inform future clinical strategies aimed at fostering self-control abilities to prevent and/or treat unhealthy weight gain.

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Fig. 1: SEMs used in the study.
Fig. 2: SEMs representing.
Fig. 3: Correlations between latent factors of impulsivity and cortical thickness.


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This research was supported by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Grant to AD. IGG was the recipient of a Postdoctoral Fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. SN was supported by a Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarship. UV was supported by Personal Post-doctoral Research Funding project PUTJD654 and by Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS) foreign post-doctoral training award.

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IGG, SN, SGS, UV, DLC, AD conceptualized the study, SN, SGS, NS collected the data, IGG, SN, FM, MD, YY, YZ, analyzed the data, all authors contributed to writing and editing of the paper.

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Correspondence to Alain Dagher.

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Garcia-Garcia, I., Neseliler, S., Morys, F. et al. Relationship between impulsivity, uncontrolled eating and body mass index: a hierarchical model. Int J Obes 46, 129–136 (2022).

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