A Systematic Review of the Measurement of Sustainable Diets1–3

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Abstract

Sustainability has become an integral consideration of the dietary guidelines of many countries in recent decades. However, a lack of clear metrics and a shared approach to measuring the multiple components of sustainable diets has hindered progress toward generating the evidence needed to ensure the credibility of new guidelines. We performed a systematic literature review of empirical research studies on sustainable diets to identify the components of sustainability that were measured and the methods applied to do so. Two independent reviewers systematically searched 30 databases and other sources with the use of a uniform set of search terms and a priori exclusion criteria. In total, 113 empirical studies were included in the final review. Nearly all of the studies were focused on high-income countries. Although there was substantial heterogeneity in the components of sustainability measured, the estimated greenhouse gas emissions (GHGEs) of various dietary patterns were by far most commonly measured (n = 71 studies). Estimating the GHGEs of foods through various stages of production, use, and recycling with the use of the Life Cycle Assessment approach was the most common method applied to measure the environmental impacts of diets (n = 49 studies). Many components of sustainable diets identified in existing conceptual frameworks are disproportionately underrepresented in the empirical literature, as are studies that examine consumer demand for sustainable dietary alternatives. The emphasis in the literature on high-income countries also overlooks the production and dietary alternatives most relevant to low- and middle-income countries. We propose 3 methodological and measurement approaches that would both improve the global relevance of our understanding of sustainable diets and attend more completely to the existing multidimensional, multiscale conceptual framing of sustainable diets.

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