Considering the value of dietary assessment data in informing nutrition-related health policy

Adv Nutr. 2014 Jul 14;5(4):447-55. doi: 10.3945/an.114.006189. Print 2014 Jul.


Dietary assessment has long been known to be challenged by measurement error. A substantial amount of literature on methods for determining the effects of error on causal inference has accumulated over the past decades. These methods have unrealized potential for improving the validity of data collected for research studies and national nutritional surveillance, primarily through the NHANES. Recently, the validity of dietary data has been called into question. Arguments against using dietary data to assess diet-health relations or to inform the nutrition policy debate are subject to flaws that fall into 2 broad areas: 1) ignorance or misunderstanding of methodologic issues; and 2) faulty logic in drawing inferences. Nine specific issues are identified in these arguments, indicating insufficient grasp of the methods used for assessing diet and designing nutritional epidemiologic studies. These include a narrow operationalization of validity, failure to properly account for sources of error, and large, unsubstantiated jumps to policy implications. Recent attacks on the inadequacy of 24-h recall-derived data from the NHANES are uninformative regarding effects on estimating risk of health outcomes and on inferences to inform the diet-related health policy debate. Despite errors, for many purposes and in many contexts, these dietary data have proven to be useful in addressing important research and policy questions. Similarly, structured instruments, such as the food frequency questionnaire, which is the mainstay of epidemiologic literature, can provide useful data when errors are measured and considered in analyses.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Diet Surveys*
  • Diet*
  • Epidemiologic Studies
  • Health*
  • Humans
  • Nutrition Assessment*
  • Nutrition Policy*
  • Nutritional Status*