A pilot project studying the influence of fast-food restaurants on obesity will be launched in England by Northern Illinois University Prof. Philippe Giabbanelli. Using computer models, the project will examine the impact of proposed fast-food zoning regulations around schools, which aim to reduce young people’s access to fast food, and promote healthy eating.
It is hoped that the results of the project will help develop better zoning regulations and policies.
“The impact of fast foods on obesity and food consumption varies over space, and there’s a strong and growing need to estimate the impact of zoning measures,” Giabbanelli said in a press release.
Giabbanelli is a systems scientist who recently joined the Department of Computer Science at NIU. He has degrees in computer science and biomedical physiology, and his current research focuses on computational modeling. He is particularly interested in developing computer simulations applied to complex health problems, such as obesity.
With funding from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Giabbanelli will develop a computer simulation model assessing the impact of fast food zoning around 25,000 English schools. He will use the precise location of the schools and fast food restaurants to model the complex interrelationships influencing food consumption and obesity.
“One change in a complex system can result in unintended consequences in unexpected places,” Giabbanelli said. “So our model will serve to quantify the expected impacts of regulations, including assessment of their interactions with other policies and features of the landscape. Capturing these interactions is an essential part of bringing a systems-science approach to local regulations.”
It is hoped that the project will be extended to other countries, including Canada and the Netherlands, through a consortium led by Giabbanelli.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends several environmental and policy level strategies to prevent obesity. These include zoning to reduce the density of fast food restaurants in a particular area, restricting fast food restaurants within a specified distance from schools, encouraging farming in urban areas, and promoting the development of large grocery stores in urban areas.
Systems science is an interdisciplinary field that studies the nature of systems in nature and society. It aims to develop interdisciplinary foundations that are applicable in a variety of areas, such as engineering, social sciences, biology, and medicine.
“There are a lot directions you can take with computer science, and systems science is particularly exciting right now,” Giabbanelli said.