Using Systems Approaches to Catalyze Whole-of-Community Childhood Obesity Prevention Efforts

October 1, 2019

By: Erin Hennessy; Ariella R. Korn; Christina D. Economos

Obesity is a growing global pandemic. The complexity of the problem—which spans areas from poverty and food insecurity to culture, societal norms, federal and state policies, community resources, and individual behavior—makes it difficult to address, and current efforts to tackle it have had limited success.  

This paper argues that by combining two current movements in obesity research—the integration of “systems science” into obesity prevention efforts and the adoption of a “whole-of-community” approach to obesity interventions—the tide could be turned on obesity. 

Systems science is well-suited to the study of complex, interconnected issues and has been used to address other large challenges like tobacco use and infectious diseases. Working from a six-condition model for change, systems science strives to identify the full range of external and internal factors that contribute to the problem. When this approach is combined with multilevel, multifaceted solutions implemented holis¬tically throughout an entire community, the promise of success dramatically increases over single-issue approaches. 

Proactive education programs addressing early childhood obesity are already showing positive outcomes in reducing obesity. Local and state programs have illustrated what might be possible if they could be scaled. The paper offers recommendations and action steps across government, philanthropy, nonprofit and community organizations, academia, and the private sector to integrate systems approaches with whole-of-community childhood obesity prevention efforts.


Hunger and Obesity: The Council has been exploring the topic of hunger & obesity with partner institutions and fellows, led by Catherine Bertini. Over the next few months we will feature selected papers to highlight this work. This project has been made possible through the generous support of the Rockefeller Foundation.

Using Systems Approaches to Catalyze Whole-of-Community Childhood Obesity Prevention Efforts

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