AJPH highlights systems science applications in obesity research

Obesity is arguably the most pressing public health problem of our time. Over 3 billion children and adults worldwide are expected to be counted among the overweight and obese population in less than two decades. Substantial efforts by the public health community have focused on addressing the problem, but in order to implement effective solutions, a greater understanding of the complexities associated with obesity is needed. Through a special issue, the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH, July 2014) is showcasing cutting edge research in this area.

“This theme issue highlights some of the work that is being done in obesity research using systems science approaches,” Dr. Regina Bures said of the special edition, titled Using Systems Science in Obesity Research. Bures is program officer in the Center for Population Research at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and served as a guest editor for the AJPH theme issue.

“Systems science refers to a family of methods, comprised mostly of computation and mathematical modeling techniques and network analysis,” said Dr. Patricia Mabry, senior advisor for prevention research at the Office of Disease Prevention at NIH and the issue’s other guest editor.

Mabry and Bures are co-leaders of the Envision project (, a network of obesity modeling teams brought together by the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR). Many Envision members’ contributions to the field are highlighted within the theme issue.
Systems science approaches are designed to explore complex systems and help us understand how and why those systems behave the way they do over time. “This improved understanding of dynamic behavior can help us figure out new ways to intervene, as well as develop cost-effective interventions,” Mabry added.

Twelve articles make up the theme issue, which was supported by Envision:

  • An introduction to the theme issue by Drs. Mabry and Bures
  • An Editor’s Choice article describing the role for systems science in obesity research (Bures et al)
  • A system dynamics model for understanding health policy (including obesity policy) in less-advantaged U.S. counties (Hirsch et al)
  • An analytic essay describing how models of metabolic, hedonic, and cognitive social processes could help understand obesity (Hall, Hammond & Rahmandad)
  • A microsimulation to help estimate missing data on childhood obesity in a large national dataset (Rendall et al)
  • An engineering approach for optimizing weight loss treatment for obese patients during pregnancy (Savage et al)
  • A microsimulation to understand the caloric equivalent of dietary change and physical activity expenditure required to achieve Healthy People 2020 goals (Basu et al)
  • A system dynamics model to quantify the energy imbalance gap responsible for the U.S. adult obesity epidemic among different gender/racial subpopulations (Fallah-Fin et al)
  • A social network analysis to understand how children’s weight status affects friend selection (Schaefer & Simpkins)
  • A system dynamics model to explore weight gain in subsequent pregnancies and future fertility among overweight and obese women (Sabounchi et al)
  • An agent-based model to understand how interactions between people impacts the effectiveness of a population-level obesity intervention (Zhang et al)
  • An agent-based model to optimize a Walking School Bus program (Yang et al)

The articles in the theme issue are freely available online at:

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