Applications of Complex Systems Models to Improve Retail Food Environments for Population Health: A Scoping Review

Megan R. Winkler, Yeeli Mui, Shanda L. Hunt, Melissa N. Laska, Joel Gittelsohn, Melissa Tracy

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Retail food environments (RFEs) are complex systems with important implications for population health. Studying the complexity within RFEs comes with challenges. Complex systems models are computational tools that can help. We performed a systematic scoping review of studies that used complex systems models to study RFEs for population health. We examined the purpose for using the model, RFE features represented, extent to which the complex systems approach was maximized, and quality and transparency of methods employed. The PRISMA-ScR (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic reviews and Meta-Analyses extension for Scoping Reviews) guidelines were followed. Studies using agent-based modeling, system dynamics, discrete event simulations, networks, hybrid, or microsimulation models were identified from 7 multidisciplinary databases. Fifty-six studies met the inclusion criteria, including 23 microsimulation, 13 agent-based, 10 hybrid, 4 system dynamics, 4 network, and 2 discrete event simulation models. Most studies (n = 45) used models for experimental purposes and evaluated effects of simulated RFE policies and interventions. RFE characteristics simulated in models were diverse, and included the features (e.g., prices) customers encounter when shopping (n = 55), the settings (e.g., restaurants, supermarkets) where customers purchase food and beverages (n = 30), and the actors (e.g., store managers, suppliers) who make decisions that influence RFEs (n = 25). All models incorporated characteristics of complexity (e.g., feedbacks, conceptual representation of multiple levels), but these were captured to varying degrees across model types. The quality of methods was adequate overall; however, few studies engaged stakeholders (n = 10) or provided sufficient transparency to verify the model (n = 12). Complex systems models are increasingly utilized to study RFEs and their contributions to public health. Opportunities to advance the use of these approaches remain, and areas to improve future research are discussed. This comprehensive review provides the first marker of the utility of leveraging these approaches to address RFEs for population health.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1028-1043
Number of pages16
JournalAdvances in Nutrition
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 1 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© The Author(s) 2021. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Society for Nutrition.


  • agent-based modeling
  • food environment
  • healthy retail
  • microsimulation
  • networks
  • nutrition interventions
  • simulation
  • system dynamics
  • systematic review

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Journal Article
  • Systematic Review
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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