Obesity, Motivation & Self Control

You’ve been trying to “get in shape” for years.

  • You have tried all the diets.
  • You’ve had a gym membership(s) for years & years
  • You buy all the books
  • You’ve hired a trainer
  • You’ve popped pills and applied creams

Problem is…

  • You diet for a week, cheat for 3 days, diet for 2, cheat for 6, diet for 1….
  • You stopped going to the gym in February
  • You read the books and never apply your newfound knowledge
  • And you skip training sessions

Your Motivation sucks and you have no Self Control

And without motivation & self control, the best weight loss program in the world is useless.

Sucks doesn’t it?

And it sucks even worse when you run into one of those people who never seem tempted by America’s fast food industry.

Why is it that they can say no to a delicious Big Mac with 2 all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese….while you’re getting hungry just looking at the picture.

According to this study, one of the major differences between normal weight people and overweight people is impulsivity.

What the heck is impulsivity?

According to the researchers, impulsivity is an important construct that covers a wide range of behavioral, motivational and emotional phenomena.

In this context, impulsivity is made up of four separate components, which are the basis for the creation of a scale called the UPPS Impulsive Behavior Scale:

  1. Urgency, defined as ‘‘the tendency to experience strong impulses, frequently under conditions of negative affect’’;
  2. Lack of Perseverance, defined as ‘‘the difficulty to remain focused on a task that may be boring or difficult’’;
  3. Lack of Premeditation, defined as ‘‘the difficulty to think and reflect on the consequences of an act before engaging in the act’’;
  4. Sensation Seeking, defined as ‘‘a tendency to enjoy and pursue activities that are exciting, and openness for new experiences.’’

Previous studies had shown that urgency may contribute to an obese person’s problem controlling eating in situations of strong emotion. See emotional eating.


Lack of Perseverance has only been measured in obese persons by means of self-report questionnaires. Previous research has shown a link between obesity and self discipline (which is related to lack of Perseverance). Obese persons who overeat have a strong tendency to suppress thoughts which may make the suppressed thoughts (e.g., thoughts of food) become hyperaccessible, which in turn causes distress and increased food consumption. This may explain why obese people overeat, despite their intentions to control their food intake.

In the same vein, it has been shown that avoidance of body/shape concerns actually increases such preoccupations. Thought control difficulties may discourage patients and interfere with their treatment.

.The Lack of Premeditation aspect of impulsivity has shown in previous studies that obese persons choose immediate rewards even when future long-term negative consequences are associated with them. This reflects an inability to assess future impact, which may potentially contribute to disadvantageous decision-making (e.g., not considering the possible long-term negative consequences of overeating).

.When it comes to the Sensation Seeking dimension  of impulsivity, research has shown that overweight persons with binge eating disorders have enhanced sensitivity to rewards. The tendency to seek rewards (e.g.,food) is associated with food intake, overeating and subsequent weight gain, as well as difficulty maintaining or losing weight. This tendency affects food intake, especially when varied food (food that varies in color, form, taste and texture) is offered. It may be related to a heightened selective attention to food stimuli and may make it difficult to regulate eating, particularly in obese individuals who have impaired sensitivity to the hunger and satiety signals that normally regulate eating.

The researchers hypothesized that hypersensitivity to food stimuli associated with poor self-control would lead to difficulties regulating eating behavior and related thoughts.

The Study

The aim of this study was to examine for the first time how obesity and eating disorder symptoms are related to the four facets of impulsivity in a clinical sample of overweight and obese women.

The results suggested that overweight and obese persons have higher levels of:

  • Urgency,
  • lack of Perseverance,
  • Sensitivity to Reward, and
  • Sensitivity to Punishment.

In regards to Urgency, the results suggest that obese and overweight persons may have difficulties controlling their eating behavior, and especially when they are experiencing intense emotions.

This inability to prevent oneself from overeating may have detrimental immediate (e.g., self-depreciation, depressed mood, abdominal pain) and long-term consequences (e.g., weight gain). This tendency to overeat can, in turn, lead to the development of maladaptive strategies to control weight (e.g., dieting, skipping meals). As such, it may help explain why certain overweight and obese individuals develop an eating disorder.

The high levels of lack of Perseverance may result in obese and overweight individuals having difficulty controlling their thoughts of food or thoughts concerning their shape and weight.

This phenomenon may lead to overeating because thoughts of food increase the desire to eat.

Sadly,  eating may be used to escape from negative thoughts (e.g., general negative thoughts or self depreciating thoughts following out-of-control eating). This phenomenon is probably reinforced by the temporary alleviation of the negative thoughts and emotions and it may well increase the likelihood of excessive food intake.

The researchers also found that obese and overweight persons have high levels of Sensitivity to Reward. This tendency to exaggerate the impact of rewards (food, in this case) may lead to weight gain or impede weight loss.


Based upon their results, the researchers concluded that:

  • Obese and overweight persons find it difficult to inhibit automatic or dominant behaviors and intrusive thoughts.
  • They also have a tendency to exaggerate the impact of rewards and punishments.
  • The study also confirmed the relationship between impulsivity and dysfunctional eating.

Based on these conclusions, the researchers believe that psychological interventions into obesity should target the self-control problems that characterize impulsive behaviors.

Two types of interventions should be offered:

  1. Obese and overweight patients may benefit from treatment that focuses directly on remediation of inhibition, attention and mental flexibility and improves processing resources.
  2. They may also benefit from interventions that circumvent limited cognitive resources and work on automatic processes.

To the extent that obese persons have deficits affecting inhibition and mental flexibility, they may benefit from mindfulness techniques that target inhibition (of dominant or automatic behaviors and of intrusive thoughts) and mental flexibility processes. Mindfulness encourages a more adaptive relationship with the thoughts and negative emotions that previously triggered problematic eating; it also encourages patients to observe their feelings of hunger and satiety.

Since intrusive thoughts and visual images of food (visualizing a specific food item) and olfactory images of food (smelling a specific food item) play a key role in triggering overeating, obese persons may benefit from imagery techniques that aim to strengthen their thought-control abilities. The imagery technique uses visual and olfactory imagery tasks in which persons are trained to form images that interfere with images of food. To this end, they are asked to read visual and olfactory cues silently. These cues are unrelated to food and are printed on a sheet of paper, for example ‘‘Imagine the appearance of a rainbow’’ or ‘‘Imagine the smell of freshly mown grass.’’

Then, the patients are instructed to maintain the imagined scene or smell by focusing exclusively on the picture or on the smell that each one brought to mind. Researchers have  found that this procedure reduced food desire. They suggest that this is because the visual and olfactory images interfere with food-related images.

Given that binge eating often occurs when cognitive resources are depleted (e.g.,when the person is tired or under stress), obese persons may benefit from implementation intention techniques that rely on automatic components of self-regulation.
The idea is that planning in advance when, where and how a person will complete a self-assigned goal (‘‘If situation x is encountered, I will perform behavior y!’’) leads to effective and automatic goal initiation and pursuit.

This technique has been found to facilitate the attainment of goals to eat healthier foods (less fat and more fruits) and to engage in physical exercise.
Whew…that’s a lot of science to absorb on a Tuesday afternoon.

And it’s exactly why I say that losing weight isn’t as simple as “eat less & move more“.


  1. Doug,

    This is an EXCEPTIONAL post! Too many trainers are far too ignorant of the psychological aspects of fat loss, and sadly, certifying organizations pay little attention to that type of information. So thankful that you’re spreading the word.


  2. I agree with this article. For most people,they know what is right to do. They don’t just have the ‘it’ factor that makes them ‘just do it.I was overweight most of my life(trying ‘VERY’ hard but loosing and gaining all bak). Problem was,I never had the motivation or a certain urgent reason to take off the weight thus I was inconsistent with my efforts.Then came this summer and something snapped inside my head..it seems like I can’t lose it fast enough. There’s still no pressing reason,my bloodwork is fine(I eat healthily off and on again) but It’s like I woke up on a warm morning and thought to myself ‘So why have you being doing this to yourself?you want something so bad but you stop yourself.You know you want to be skinny! Just try it,stay at 130lbs for at least one year and if you honestly don’t think you prefer your skinny self,then by all means get back to 200lbs’ (yes,cos I don’t see those fast-food places kidnapping people and shoving food down their faces. I think weigthloss is easy,technically,baring any hormones and whatnot. For me and most people I know who had or are still struggling with their weight,it’s mostly in the mind. It’s really not a secret.
    1. You don’t necessarily have to ‘eat less’ just change what it is you do eat.
    2. You don’t have to slave away at the gym;find an opportunity for spontaneous exercise.KEEP moving.
    My weight is coming off so fast that I know if I remain in this headspace,it won’t be long before I get where I want to be.It may be some chemical in my brain that just started functioning again.You think? Lol just my veeery long 2cents!

  3. This is an excellent artcle! As a therapist, I see more and more individuals who have weight issues in addition to the other things going on in their lives. Impulsivity is the common thread! Thanks!!

  4. Yes yes yes!! Awesome to see someone from the fitness world really get into the psuchology of overeating! Thank you

    That said, to people out there who are dealing with the above issues, do not lose heart and do not use this as another excuse to not get fit. The fact is, when confronting eating habits that are used as a means of suppressing emotions, things will likely feel worse before they feel better. After all, you’re unearthing years of unhappiness. But it’s worth it when you see it through, not just because of the physical benefits. And get support! Online communities, therapy, support groups. Just stay with it, even through the rough patches. It IS worth it

  5. Very good article that peels back some of the layers of weight management. With the decrease of societies connection with being active outdoors for long periods leads to a cacooning effect that is another factor in food impulsivity.

  6. This is one of the best articles that I have read on obesity ! Thanks for sharing, your posts are always very informative.


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