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

RESEARCH Report by Christina D. Economos , Erin Hennessy , and Ariella R. Korn
Farmer attending crops in a vegetable field.

This paper argues that combining two movements in obesity research could turn the tide on obesity.


Obesity is a growing 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.

Key Findings

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 holistically 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.

About the Authors
Christina D. Economos
Professor, Tufts University
Christina D. Economos, PhD is a Professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the School of Medicine at Tufts University and the Director of ChildObesity180. Dr. Economos also serves as vice-chair of the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine Roundtable on Obesity Solutions.
Erin Hennessy
Assistant Professor, Tufts University
Erin Hennessy, PhD, MPH is an assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. Prior to joining the Friedman School, she was a senior behavioral scientist with the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute.
Ariella R. Korn
Doctoral Fellow, Tufts University
Ariella R. Korn, MS, MPH is a doctoral candidate and New Balance Doctoral Fellow in Childhood Nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.