Systematic Review of Natural Experiments for Childhood Obesity Prevention and Control

Carolyn T. Bramante, Rachel L.J. Thornton, Wendy L. Bennett, Allen Zhang, Renee F. Wilson, Eric B. Bass, Eva Tseng

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


CONTEXT: The National Academy of Medicine recommends childhood obesity prevention efforts making healthier options the passive choice. This review evaluated the effectiveness of population-level policies and programs from natural experiments for childhood obesity prevention.

EVIDENCE ACQUISTION: The search included PubMed, CINAHL, PsycINFO, and EconLit from 2000 to 2017 for policies evaluated by natural experiments reporting childhood BMI outcomes. The studies were analyzed in 2017-2018. Interventions were classified by environmental focus (food/beverage, physical activity, or both) and stratified by setting (school, community, both). Risk of bias was evaluated for each study.

EVIDENCE SYNTHESIS: Of 33 natural experiments, most (73%) took place in the school setting only. The most common environmental focus in any setting was food/beverage (48%). All four studies that focused on both food/beverage and physical activity in schools demonstrated decreased prevalence of overweight/obesity or BMI z-score by 0.04-0.17. BMI decreased in all four studies in both school and community settings. The largest effect size was a decrease in BMI z-score of 0.5, but most were <0.25. The risk of bias was high for most (76%) studies. Most (63%) of the eight studies with low/medium risk of bias took place in the school setting focused on the food/beverage environment; effects on BMI were mixed.

CONCLUSIONS: Natural experiments evaluating school-based policies focusing on both the food/beverage and physical activity environments (versus targeting only one) consistently showed improvement in BMI. However, most studies had high risk of bias, highlighting the need for improved methods for evaluation of natural experiments for childhood obesity prevention.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)147-158
Number of pages12
JournalAmerican journal of preventive medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The funding source for this paper is from the NIH Office of Disease Prevention and AHRQ .

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019 Elsevier Ltd

PubMed: MeSH publication types

  • Review
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural


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