Whole System Approach

Helping the UK tackle modern public health challenges through an innovative research and practical whole system approach.

Image of a male using bike connected to computer for fitness data
The main entrance of James Graham building

obesity A major global health crisis

One in four adults are living with obesity. Childhood obesity has been classed by the World Health Organisation as one of the most serious challenges for the 21st Century. Old or young, obesity carries significant health, social and economic consequences.

The Foresight Tackling Obesities systems map illustrates the complex web of factors that cause obesity. Heterogeneous and interdependent individual and socio-environmental level factors all interact dynamically to affect behaviour. Therefore, to help to address this epidemic, we need to look across all the different factors and explore what can be done over the short, medium and long term.

Most Local Authorities will have some strategies and programmes in place to tackle obesity. By taking a whole systems approach, we can add value by providing the opportunity to engage stakeholders across the wider system. This in turn lets us develop a shared vision and coherent actions that tackle the more upstream drivers of obesity, which are often outside the realms of Public Health.

A whole system approach to obesity

We live in a complex, messy world. Our health is affected by numerous social, economic and environmental interactions.

To address modern public health challenges - such as obesity, air pollution, reducing teen pregnancies and alcohol-related harm - we must find ways to understand and influence the numerous interconnected factors that affect our lives.

A whole systems approach is the most promising way to do this. It helps us make a step change in the way we address such issues. Using systems thinking to look at, learn about and understand complex situations, a whole systems approach:

  • Responds to complexity through an ongoing, dynamic and flexible way of working
  • Enables stakeholders to come together and share an understanding of the reality of the challenge and consider how the system is operating
  • Identifies the greatest opportunities for change
  • Generates sustainable change by stakeholders agreeing actions and deciding as a network how to work together in an integrated way

Leeds Beckett University has been involved in obesity research for over twenty years. Public Health England commissioned us to produce a guide and supporting resources to enable any local authority to produce a local whole systems approach to obesity.

practical guidance

Public Health England commissioned Leeds Beckett University to develop a guide and supporting resources to enable any Local Authority in England - and the wider UK - to implement a whole systems approach to tackling obesity within their local area.

The guide, published in July 2019, describes a “how to” process, which can enable local authorities, and their partners, to start creating their own local whole systems approaches to tackling obesity and promoting a healthy weight. Policy makers and practitioners were involved in the co-development of the guide and accompanying resources.

Although developed with a focus on obesity, the approach is applicable and transferable to any complex public health challenge.

our team