Can systems science improve dietary guidelines?

Integrating systems science into the dietary guidelines process


Every 5 years since 1980, USDA and HHS have jointly issued the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). Within USDA, the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) leads the development of the guidelines, which serve as the cornerstone of federal food and nutrition guidance. Prior to developing each new edition of the DGA, USDA and HHS convene an independent, external panel of experts with expertise in nutrition and public health to review the scientific evidence. Historically, committee members have used 3 approaches to investigating the scientific evidence: original and existing systemic reviews, food pattern modeling, and data analysis.

Based on a congressionally mandated study to reassess the DGA development process, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine encouraged the commission of research and evaluation of strategies to integrate systems approaches into the DGA process. Systems approaches have been used for decades but only in a limited way in the field of nutrition. Considering the importance of the DGA in setting policy, guiding practitioners, and educating and influencing consumers across the nation, CNPP must consider the applicability of systems science approaches carefully and fully.


In 2022, for CNPP, Insight Policy Research (now Westat) conducted a study to explore potential options to incorporate systems science into the dietary guidelines process. This work:

  • Explored options for integrating systems science approaches into the DGA process
  • Determined the applicability and feasibility of proposed options to improve the process
  • Identified steps needed to implement any feasible and beneficial option

Researchers planned and implemented a 2-day workshop titled Workshop on the Applicability of Systems Science Approaches to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The workshop included a diverse panel of 16 experts in systems science, nutrition, and health. Experts engaged in extensive discussion on systems science and its applicability to the DGA development process, including implementation.


Input received at the workshop and during subsequent review of the report draft was used to develop the report, Applicability of Systems Science Approaches to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (PDF). The report provides 6 action strategies for integrating systems science into the process and acknowledges systems science work currently underway.


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