Complex Systems Approaches to Diet: A Systematic Review

Brent A. Langellier, U. Bilal, Felipe Montes, Jose D. Meisel, Letícia de Oliveira Cardoso, Ross A. Hammond

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Context: Complex systems approaches can help to elucidate mechanisms that shape population-level patterns in diet and inform policy approaches. This study reports results of a structured review of key design elements and methods used by existing complex systems models of diet. Evidence acquisition: The authors conducted systematic searches of the PubMed, Web of Science, and LILACS databases between May and September 2018 to identify peer-reviewed manuscripts that used agent-based models or system dynamics models to explore diet. Searches occurred between November 2017 and May 2018. The authors extracted relevant data regarding each study's diet and nutrition outcomes; use of data for parameterization, calibration, and validation; results; and generated insights. The literature search adhered to PRISMA guidelines. Evidence synthesis: Twenty-two agent-based model studies and five system dynamics model studies met the inclusion criteria. Mechanistic studies explored neighborhood- (e.g., residential segregation), interpersonal- (e.g., social influence) and individual-level (e.g., heuristics that guide food purchasing decisions) mechanisms that influence diet. Policy-oriented studies examined policies related to food pricing, the food environment, advertising, nutrition labels, and social norms. Most studies used empirical data to inform values of key parameters; studies varied in their approaches to calibration and validation. Conclusions: Opportunities remain to advance the state of the science of complex systems approaches to diet and nutrition. These include using models to better understand mechanisms driving population-level diet, increasing use of models for policy decision support, and leveraging the wide availability of epidemiologic and policy evaluation data to improve model validation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)273-281
Number of pages9
JournalAmerican Journal of Preventive Medicine
Issue number2
StatePublished - Aug 2019

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Epidemiology
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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