Impact of policy and built environment changes on obesity-related outcomes: a systematic review of naturally occurring experiments

Obes Rev. 2015 May;16(5):362-75. doi: 10.1111/obr.12269. Epub 2015 Mar 5.


Policies and changes to the built environment are promising targets for obesity prevention efforts and can be evaluated as 'natural'- or 'quasi'-experiments. This systematic review examined the use of natural- or quasi-experiments to evaluate the efficacy of policy and built environment changes on obesity-related outcomes (body mass index, diet or physical activity). PubMed (Medline) was searched for studies published 2005-2013; 1,175 abstracts and 115 papers were reviewed. Of the 37 studies included, 18 studies evaluated impacts on nutrition/diet, 17 on physical activity and 3 on body mass index. Nutrition-related studies found greater effects because of bans/restrictions on unhealthy foods, mandates offering healthier foods, and altering purchase/payment rules on foods purchased using low-income food vouchers compared with other interventions (menu labelling, new supermarkets). Physical activity-related studies generally found stronger impacts when the intervention involved improvements to active transportation infrastructure, longer follow-up time or measured process outcomes (e.g., cycling rather than total physical activity), compared with other studies. Only three studies directly assessed body mass index or weight, and only one (installing light-rail system) observed a significant effect. Studies varied widely in the strength of their design and studies with weaker designs were more likely to report associations in the positive direction.

Keywords: Diet; natural experiments; obesity; physical activity.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Body Mass Index
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / prevention & control*
  • Diet*
  • Environment Design*
  • Exercise*
  • Food / economics*
  • Health Promotion / organization & administration*
  • Humans
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena
  • Obesity / epidemiology
  • Obesity / prevention & control*
  • Policy Making
  • Public Policy*