Techniques for Modifying Impulsive Processes Associated With Unhealthy Eating: A Systematic Review

Health Psychol. 2016 Aug;35(8):793-806. doi: 10.1037/hea0000337.


Objective: This systematic review aimed to (a) identify and categorize techniques used to modify or manage impulsive processes associated with unhealthy eating behavior, (b) describe the mechanisms targeted by such techniques, and (c) summarize available evidence on the effectiveness of these techniques.

Method: Searches of 5 bibliographic databases identified studies, published in English since 1993, that evaluated at least 1 technique to modify impulsive processes affecting eating in adults. Data were systematically extracted on study characteristics, population, study quality, intervention techniques, proposed mechanisms of action, and outcomes. Effectiveness evidence was systematically collated and described without meta-analysis.

Results: Ninety-two studies evaluated 17 distinct impulse management techniques. They were categorized according to whether they aimed to (a) modify the strength of impulses or (b) engage the reflective system or other resources in identifying, suppressing, or otherwise managing impulses. Although higher quality evidence is needed to draw definitive conclusions, promising changes in unhealthy food consumption and food cravings were observed for visuospatial loading, physical activity, and if-then planning, typically for up to 1-day follow-up.

Conclusions: A wide range of techniques have been evaluated and some show promise for use in weight management interventions. However, larger-scale, more methodologically robust, community-based studies with longer follow-up times are needed to establish whether such techniques can have a long-term impact on eating patterns. (PsycINFO Database Record

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Cues
  • Diet, Healthy / psychology*
  • Exercise / psychology
  • Female
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Humans
  • Impulsive Behavior*
  • Individuality
  • Male
  • Obesity / psychology
  • Obesity / therapy
  • Overweight / psychology
  • Overweight / therapy
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic
  • Young Adult