A Complex Systems Framework for Obesity Research, Policy and Practice
Simon Fraser University
Last modified: June 30, 2007
The global epidemic of obesity has emerged as a result of many factors which influence food and physical activity related behaviours. Increased caloric intake, in particular through consumption of energy dense foods, and decreases in daily levels of energy expenditure are associated with changes in our social and physical environments. Changes in the social and physical environment have occurred at multiple levels including those proximal to individuals such as home, schools, and worksites, in communities and regions and at national and international levels (IOTF Causal Web). Over the past few decades overweight and obesity have usually been addressed with simple solutions such as diets promoted by the diet industry or health promotion campaigns encouraging individuals to increase their level of physical activity or decrease consumption through means such as a low fat diet. These approaches have generally ignored the complexity of the food and physical activity environment and have not recognized the need to increase individual capacity or decrease complexity. Recent attention to the epidemic of obesity has resulted in an increase in collective effort and investment in research and programs aimed at increasing physical activity and decreasing food intake. Although much of this investment is still directed at education and social marketing campaigns, there is some recognition that the complexity of the environment needs to be reduced to make “the healthy choice the easy choice”. Increased investments in research and evaluation are also supporting the measurement of effectiveness of policies and practice. Future efforts to apply a complex systems analysis are needed to help target investments to solutions that will increase capacity, decrease complexity, and enhance feedback loops that measure the effectiveness of new policies and programs.