Identifying Key Determinants of Childhood Obesity: A Narrative Review of Machine Learning Studies

Madison N. Lecroy, Ryung S. Kim, June Stevens, David B. Hanna, Carmen R. Isasi

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Machine learning is a class of algorithms able to handle a large number of predictors with potentially nonlinear relationships. By applying machine learning to obesity, researchers can examine how risk factors across multiple settings (e.g., school and home) interact to best predict childhood obesity risk. In this narrative review, we provide an overview of studies that have applied machine learning to predict childhood obesity using a combination of sociodemographic and behavioral risk factors. The objective is to summarize the key determinants of obesity identified in existing machine learning studies and highlight opportunities for future machine learning applications in the field. Of 15 peer-reviewed studies, approximately half examined early childhood (0-24 months of age) determinants. These studies identified child's weight history (e.g., history of overweight/obesity or large increases in weight-related measures between birth and 24 months of age) and parental overweight/obesity (current or prior) as key risk factors, whereas the remaining studies indicated that social factors and physical inactivity were important in middle childhood and late childhood/adolescence. Across age groups, findings suggested that race/ethnic-specific models may be needed to accurately predict obesity from middle childhood onward. Future studies should consider using existing large data sets to take advantage of the benefits of machine learning and should collect a wider range of novel risk factors (e.g., psychosocial and sociocultural determinants of health) to better predict childhood obesity. Ultimately, such research can aid in the development of effective obesity prevention interventions, particularly ones that address the disproportionate burden of obesity experienced by racial/ethnic minorities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)153-159
Number of pages7
JournalChildhood Obesity
Issue number3
StatePublished - Apr 2021


  • childhood obesity
  • machine learning
  • minority health
  • social determinants of health

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism
  • Nutrition and Dietetics


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