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Whole Systems Approach to Tackle Obesity

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Whole systems approach to obesity: A guide to support local approaches to promoting a healthy weight  was published on 25th July 2019 by Public Health England

LBU was commissioned by Public Health England, in partnership with the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health, to produce this guide, supporting resources and a learning report to help local authorities and their partners with the process of creating a whole systems approach.  The resources include a short animation, which describes the relevance and importance of taking a whole systems approach to tackling obesity. 

The guide was the culmination of a 3-year period of co-production, development and testing of systems activities and tools with local government organisations across England.

The guide and resources are supported by an edition of Public Health England’s professional resource, Health Matters. This includes a set of infographics, which can be used by local areas to make this case for taking a whole systems approach. 

For more information about Leeds Beckett University’s role in the programme or for support in delivering  a whole systems approach to obesity in your area, please contact

Duncan Radley, Senior Research Fellow in Physical Activity and Obesity


Telephone:0113 812 9108

Joanna Saunders, Senior Consultant on the Whole Systems Obesity Programme


Telephone: 0113 812 5373  Mobile: 0734 203 2887

What is the project about?

Whole Systems Obesity LogoObesity is a major global health crisis, one in four adults are obese* and childhood obesity has been classed by the World Health Organisation as one of the most serious challenges for the 21st Century with significant health, social and economic consequences.

However, tackling obesity is a complex and multifaceted problem with over a hundred contributing factors as identified in the Foresight Tackling Obesities systems map. 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 within a sustained whole systems approach.

The role of local authorities (LAs) in tackling and working to prevent obesity is crucial. Public Health England, the Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Public Health are exploring how to make greater in-roads into tackling obesity by developing whole systems approaches’ that act across the local system. Leeds Beckett University has been commissioned to lead a three year programme to explore with LAs and other partners what a Whole Systems Approaches may look like on the ground.

*Health & Social Care Information Centre. (2014) Health Survey for England, 2013: Health, social care and lifestyles: summary of findings. [online] Health & Social Care Information Centre. Available at: www.hscic.gov.uk/catalogue/PUB16076/HSE2013-Sum-bklet.pdf [Accessed 03 July 2015].

What will the outputs of the programme be?

Leeds Beckett University and a range of other partners will be working closely with LAs to understand what is working well and what the opportunities and realities are for LAs in tackling obesity. The goal is to co-produce a roadmap that will enable LAs to make a major step change in dealing with this important and challenging issue.

The key to this is exploring what works and what might work, drawing on both international learning and the experiences of colleagues working in LAs across England, UK and internationally. So far during year 1 we have:

  • Established the COL with over 500 members, issued quarterly newsletters and held a number of events and surveys including a national conference for almost 300 people in October 2016
  • Recruited and are working with four Pilot LAs
  • Identified a range of issues from the perspective of LAs through a number of surveys, which mirror feedback from other sources about the current position for LAs, and for public health in particular
  • Established the importance of “pre-systems thinking” – robust preparation to bring together all of the relevant material and partners and enabling people to see their place in the system (and what’s in it for them)
  • Assessed material about what is a whole systems approach in this context and what it might look like in practice. Engaged with international colleagues
  • Established that whilst there is no clear evidence of comprehensive whole systems approaches working in practice, the evidence from many sources does support the argument that a whole systems approach and on-going systems thinking do address many of the weaknesses with the current approach, and should enable LAs to make a step change in the way that they regard and tackle obesity in their local areas
  • Drawn on this material to create a draft definition of a whole systems approach (still under development), which will enable us to describe the approach and benefits
  • Created a draft route map and made a start on creating some of the tools to support it: a process that takes a LA and its stakeholders through the process of thinking through why obesity matters in its widest context, who needs to be involved in bringing about change, and creating an action plan that is evidence-based, personal to and owned by the local area, and where all of the stakeholders can see their role and “what’s in it for me”
  • Gained feedback from LAs that is positive about the proposed route map. Colleagues have also provided feedback on what they would like to see to help them implement the approach including materials, briefings and practical workshops to help them move forwards.

We are now sharing the draft more widely and will produce a tested, refined and expanded final version by September 2018.

Community of Learning

A key element of the programme is about understanding the issues and priorities from the perspectives of Local Authorities and other stakeholders, and we welcome contributions from anyone with an interest in tackling obesities. We have therefore set up a Community of Learning to share further information about aspects of the route map, events and share material about the issues LAs are raising, and invite colleagues to take part in surveys and discussions, send in contributions and ideas, share learning and find out about plans for further events.

We are planning a programme of communications and consultation so that we can explain the concepts and how the route map works in practice, to get more views on how we can improve it, and understand what support and materials colleagues would find helpful to implement it.

If you not already a member please sign up to the Community of Learning and receive updates direct by clicking here.

We are keen to hear from colleagues about their experiences with whole systems approaches, so please contact us at: wholesystemsobesity@leedsbeckett.ac.uk

The Resources pages have more information that contribute to the Community of Learning.

Latest News

Whole systems approach to obesity newsletter – July 2019

National Conference, 18th October 2016

In October 2016, we held a national conference attended by nearly 300 people to mark the end of the first year of this three year programme. We shared emerging findings including the outline of the draft route map. We also held a series of workshops to discuss a number of the issues LAs have told us are most important to tackling obesity. To view the full conference report please click here

For more news and information, please go to the Resources page.

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