Systems science and obesity policy: a novel framework for analyzing and rethinking population-level planning

Am J Public Health. 2014 Jul;104(7):1270-8. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2014.301884. Epub 2014 May 15.


Objectives: We demonstrate the use of a systems-based framework to assess solutions to complex health problems such as obesity.

Methods: We coded 12 documents published between 2004 and 2013 aimed at influencing obesity planning for complex systems design (9 reports from US and Canadian governmental or health authorities, 1 Cochrane review, and 2 Institute of Medicine reports). We sorted data using the intervention-level framework (ILF), a novel solutions-oriented approach to complex problems. An in-depth comparison of 3 documents provides further insight into complexity and systems design in obesity policy.

Results: The majority of strategies focused mainly on changing the determinants of energy imbalance (food intake and physical activity). ILF analysis brings to the surface actions aimed at higher levels of system function and points to a need for more innovative policy design.

Conclusions: Although many policymakers acknowledge obesity as a complex problem, many strategies stem from the paradigm of individual choice and are limited in scope. The ILF provides a template to encourage natural systems thinking and more strategic policy design grounded in complexity science.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Diet
  • Energy Intake
  • Energy Metabolism
  • Exercise
  • Goals
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Policy*
  • Systems Theory*
  • United States