Aligning Environmental Sustainability, Health Outcomes, and Affordability in Diet Quality: A Systematic Review

Elsevier, Advances in Nutrition, Volume 14, November 2023
Leydon C.L., Leonard U.M., McCarthy S.N., Harrington J.M.

Improving diet quality while simultaneously maintaining planetary health is of critical interest globally. Despite the shared motivation, advancement remains slow, and the research community continues to operate in silos, focusing on certain pairings (diet–climate), or with a discipline-specific lens of a sustainable diet, rather than examining their totality. This review aimed to summarize the literature on adherence to a priori defined dietary patterns in consideration of diet quality, metabolic risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), environmental impacts, and affordability. A methodology using PRISMA guidelines was followed, and searches were performed in 7 databases as of October 2022. The Appraisal tool for Cross-Sectional Studies (AXIS) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) quality assessment tool for observational cohort studies were employed for quality appraisal. The evidence was narratively synthesized according to the characteristics of the diet quality metrics. The review includes 24 studies published between 2017–2023. Thirteen distinct diet quality scores were identified, with those measuring adherence to national dietary guidelines the most reported. Thirteen distinct environmental impact indicators were identified, with greenhouse gas emissions (n=23) reported most. All studies reported on body mass index, and 7 studies assessed the cost of adherence. Our results are consistent with previous findings that healthier diets can reduce environmental impacts; however, incongruities between population and planetary health can occur. Hence, the “sustainability” of dietary patterns is dependent on the choice of indicators selected. Further, healthy, lower impact diets can increase financial cost, but may also provide a protective role against the risk of obesity. Given the Global Syndemic, strategies to reduce obesity prevalence should emphasize the win–win opportunities for population and planetary health through dietary change. Research should identify diets that address multiple environmental concerns to curtail burdens potentially transferring, and harmonize this with sociocultural and equity dimensions. This review was registered at PROSPERO as CRD42021238055.