Email updates

Keep up to date with the latest news and content from BMC Medical Research Methodology and BioMed Central.

Open Access Research article

Social interactions of eating behaviour among high school students: a cellular automata approach

Vahid Dabbaghian1, Vijay K Mago1*, Tiankuang Wu2, Charles Fritz3 and Azadeh Alimadad4

Author Affiliations

1 The Modelling of Complex Social Systems (MoCSSy) Program, The IRMACS Centre, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

2 Department of Mathematics, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

3 Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

4 Faculty of Health Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Medical Research Methodology 2012, 12:155  doi:10.1186/1471-2288-12-155

Published: 9 October 2012

Abstract

Background

Overweight and obesity in children and adolescents is a global epidemic posing problems for both developed and developing nations. The prevalence is particularly alarming in developed nations, such as the United States, where approximately one in three school-aged adolescents (ages 12-19) are overweight or obese. Evidence suggests that weight gain in school-aged adolescents is related to energy imbalance exacerbated by the negative aspects of the school food environment, such as presence of unhealthy food choices. While a well-established connection exists between the food environment, presently there is a lack of studies investigating the impact of the social environment and associated interactions of school-age adolescents. This paper uses a mathematical modelling approach to explore how social interactions among high school adolescents can affect their eating behaviour and food choice.

Methods

In this paper we use a Cellular Automata (CA) modelling approach to explore how social interactions among school-age adolescents can affect eating behaviour, and food choice. Our CA model integrates social influences and transition rules to simulate the way individuals would interact in a social community (e.g., school cafeteria). To replicate these social interactions, we chose the Moore neighbourhood which allows all neighbours (eights cells in a two-dimensional square lattice) to influence the central cell. Our assumption is that individuals belong to any of four states; Bring Healthy, Bring Unhealthy, Purchase Healthy, and Purchase Unhealthy, and will influence each other according to parameter settings and transition rules. Simulations were run to explore how the different states interact under varying parameter settings.

Results

This study, through simulations, illustrates that students will change their eating behaviour from unhealthy to healthy as a result of positive social and environmental influences. In general, there is one common characteristic of changes across time; students with similar eating behaviours tend to form groups, represented by distinct clusters. Transition of healthy and unhealthy eating behaviour is non-linear and a sharp change is observed around a critical point where positive and negative influences are equal.

Conclusions

Conceptualizing the social environment of individuals is a crucial step to increasing our understanding of obesogenic environments of high-school students, and moreover, the general population. Incorporating both contextual, and individual determinants found in real datasets, in our model will greatly enhance calibration of future models. Complex mathematical modelling has a potential to contribute to the way public health data is collected and analyzed.