Using systems science to understand the determinants of inequities in healthy eating

Author/s (editor/s):

Sharon Friel
Melanie Pescud
Eleanor Malbon
Amanda Lee
Robert Carter
Joanne Greenfield
Megan Cobcroft
Jane Potter
Lucie Rychetnik
Beth Meertens

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Publication type:

Journal article

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Systems thinking has emerged in recent years as a promising approach to understanding and acting on the prevention and amelioration of non-communicable disease. However, the evidence on inequities in non-communicable diseases and their risks factors, particularly diet, has not been examined from a systems perspective. We report on an approach to developing a system oriented policy actor perspective on the multiple causes of inequities in healthy eating.


Collaborative conceptual modelling workshops were held in 2015 with an expert group of representatives from government, non-government health organisations and academia in Australia. The expert group built a systems model using a system dynamics theoretical perspective. The model developed from individual mind maps to pair blended maps, before being finalised as a causal loop diagram.


The work of the expert stakeholders generated a comprehensive causal loop diagram of the determinants of inequity in healthy eating (the HE2 Diagram). This complex dynamic system has seven sub-systems: (1) food supply and environment; (2) transport; (3) housing and the built environment; (4) employment; (5) social protection; (6) health literacy; and (7) food preferences.


The HE2 causal loop diagram illustrates the complexity of determinants of inequities in healthy eating. This approach, both the process of construction and the final visualisation, can provide the basis for planning the prevention and amelioration of inequities in healthy eating that engages with multiple levels of causes and existing policies and programs.

Cite the publication as

Friel, S, Pescud, M, Malbon, E et al 2017, ‘Using systems science to understand the determinants of inequities in healthy eating’, PLOS ONE (Public Library of Science), vol. 12, no. 11, pp. 1-18.

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