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J Nutr. 2008 Dec;138(12):2297-306. doi: 10.3945/jn.108.097154.

Application of systematic review methodology to the field of nutrition.

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  • 1Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging, Tufts University, Boston, MA 02111, USA.


Systematic reviews represent a rigorous and transparent approach to synthesizing scientific evidence that minimizes bias. They evolved within the medical community to support development of clinical and public health practice guidelines, set research agendas, and formulate scientific consensus statements. The use of systematic reviews for nutrition-related topics is more recent. Systematic reviews provide independently conducted comprehensive and objective assessments of available information addressing precise questions. This approach to summarizing available data is a useful tool for identifying the state of science including knowledge gaps and associated research needs, supporting development of science-based recommendations and guidelines, and serving as the foundation for updates as new data emerge. Our objective is to describe the steps for performing systematic reviews and highlight areas unique to the discipline of nutrition that are important to consider in data assessment. The steps involved in generating systematic reviews include identifying staffing and planning for outside expert input, forming a research team, developing an analytic framework, developing and refining research questions, defining eligibility criteria, identifying search terms, screening abstracts according to eligibility criteria, retrieving articles for evaluation, constructing evidence and summary tables, assessing methodological quality and applicability, and synthesizing results including performing meta-analysis, if appropriate. Unique and at times challenging, nutrition-related considerations include baseline nutrient exposure, nutrient status, bioequivalence of bioactive compounds, bioavailability, multiple and interrelated biological functions, undefined nature of some interventions, and uncertainties in intake assessment. Systematic reviews are a valuable and independent component of decision-making processes by groups responsible for developing science-based recommendations and policies.

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