Searching for Food, Diet & Nutrition in PubMed

By Eric Rumsey and Janna Lawrence

Much of the power of PubMed searching is due to the elegant Medical Subject Heading [MeSH] system used to index articles. When you type words into the PubMed search box, it looks for the most appropriate MeSH terms to use for your topic. When PubMed searches those MeSH terms, it also searches for closely related terms that are narrower in scope. This is especially useful because it makes it easy to search for broad categories of subjects. Search for cancer, for instance, and you’ll get every type of cancer, from leukemia to melanoma, whether the actual word cancer is used or not. The MeSH system works well for most all subjects in PubMed. A glaring exception, however, is food and nutrition.

Unlike most other subjects, to do a comprehensive food and nutrition search, it’s necessary to search for at least four different concepts:

  • Food and Beverages (a MeSH term)
  • Nutritional Physiological Phenomena (a MeSH term, which includes Diet as a narrower term)
  • Diet Therapy (a subheading)
  • Nutrition (Unlike the concepts above, this is actually not a MeSH term; it includes searching for the word nutrition as a text word, and several MeSH terms that use the word nutrition or nutritional)

Unfortunately, the articles that are indexed with terms in these clusters often do not overlap. Many articles are in only one of the clusters. Making things even more complicated, there are some aspects of the subject that are not included in any of these broad concepts. This is especially the case when searching for specific food ingredients or nutritional supplements. Here are a some examples that illustrate this — these articles are not indexed with any of the general nutritional MeSH terms mentioned above:

New post: How to do a comprehensive food and nutrition search by creating a saved search or search filter in PubMed.

UI affiliates: For help with food and nutrition searching in PubMed, please contact librarians at Hardin.