Judith E. Sulik, RDH
Do you live to eat? Or do you eat to live? Take a peek into the carriages passing you the next time you`re at the supermarket. There`s a strong likelihood that the contents will belong to people who live to eat. As convenience foods become more and more popular, the need to educate people about nutrition gains importance. While many dental hygiene programs offer a nutrition course, how many practicing dental hygienists include nutritional counseling during the patient education portion of the appointment?
Suzanne DeMarco is a Connecticut dental hygienist who has shifted her interest in patient health from dentistry to nutrition. A 1984 graduate of the Fones School of Dental Hygiene at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, she practiced dental hygiene for 81/2 years in a pediatric practice.
DeMarco is a creative person; an accomplished musician, she has played electric bass guitar in a wedding band for almost 20 years. Eventually, Connecticut`s lack of expanded function opportunities left her frustrated. She said, "I didn`t feel as if I was being as creative as I could be. I felt stifled. I decided that I had learned and grown as much as I was going to in dental hygiene."
Demarco`s decision-making process illustrates how many hygienists build upon their dental hygiene backgrounds as they make a career transition. She said, "While I was practicing dental hygiene, I received a brochure from UB about their masters in nutrition program. A nutritionist happened to have a practice across the hall from the dental office, and I started talking to her about her work."
Meanwhile, DeMarco began reading the nutrition articles in professional journals. Her interest was gaining momentum. But she wasn`t ready to enroll in the program because she was finishing up a masters in multi-media at nearby Fairfield University.
But the more DeMarco thought about nutrition as a new career direction, the more the idea appealed to her. She said, "I liked the idea of being my own boss; of being able to have my own business. Nutrition really interested me, but it took a couple of years before I decided that this is really what I want to do."
Presently, DeMarco is establishing her own practice, and she is affiliated with Designs for Health. She said, "Designs for Health is a professional network of qualified nutritionists who are highly trained to help clients achieve optimal wellness through individualized nutritional counseling."
Meanwhile, she teaches college nutrition at her alma mater, the University of Bridgeport, to both dental hygiene students and people with other majors. She is also a consultant at a health food store, where she answers customers questions about vitamins, supplements, and how to go about eating specialized diets to determine allergy sensitivities.
The nutrition field appears to be growing as interest in healthier living increases. DeMarco explained that nutritionists generally counsel one-on-one and they treat people holistically. They also recognize the value of nontraditional methods of healing, including vitamin and mineral supplements, herbs and homeopathic treatments, according to DeMarco.
At least 50 percent of DeMarco`s clients are looking to lose weight. She said, "I tell them that they`re not just here to lose weight but to get healthy, too. You have to lose weight the right way." The right way emphasizes a healthy lifestyle.
Given our weight-obsessed society, DeMarco has a message to hygienists: "Dental hygienists are probably the first professionals who can identify eating disorders by the physical effects in the mouth. Bulimics show erosion of the enamel. Bulimics and anorexics die because the heart and kidneys are overtaxed. Anorexia is not as easy to spot as bulimia, but many people feel comfortable confiding in the dental hygienist. Look for broken blood vessels; look at the person`s hand for cuts from inducing vomiting."
Practically speaking, if the hygienist notices any signs of an eating disorder, DeMarco cautions against making the patient feel defensive or nervous. She suggests saying something like "Wow, these teeth look very eroded. Do you know what could have caused this? Have you been sick or vomiting?"
She said, "Try to subtly let patients know the effects of vomiting and perhaps mention how a therapist or nutritionist could help."
Even patients without definite eating disorders may not be eating nutritiously. DeMarco is concerned about the negative consequences of eating too many carbohydrates. She said, "I`m not talking about complex carbohydrates. I`m talking about simple sugars. We eat too much sugar and it`s leading to weight gain, hypoglycemia, PMS gastrointestinal problems, yeast problems. White bread, pasta, pizza - they all turn into sugar quickly."
DeMarco notes that the fat-free craze has a down-side: the fat is replaced with more sugar to improve the product`s flavor. This should be of major concern to dental hygienists. This may change the caries situation. I`ve been meeting a lot of `carbo-fanatics`."
Just as X-rays tell the hygienist the unseen story about the teeth, nutritionists can determine mineral deficiencies by doing a hair analysis.
DeMarco said, "Hair is an excreting organ. We cut a piece of hair and it can tell us if there is even a minimal level of toxicity, or if there is any kind of imbalance in heavy metal toxicity. It can`t tell anything about vitamin levels but hair analysis is a very important assessment tool.
"For example, too much copper suggests too much sugar in the diet. Too much sugar can lead to varicose veins and diabetes. Sometimes certain cravings suggest mineral deficiencies. A chocolate craving could be because the person is deficient in magnesium. Migraine headaches could be caused by the hidden sugars in the person`s diet. Often if they strip away the sugar, the headaches go away."
One day DeMarco hopes to produce a CD-ROM on nutrition so her philosophy and message can reach more people. She is truly an energetic, quick-witted woman whose enthusiasm for healthy living and eating is contagious. Her grocery carriage is full of organically grown, preservative-free fresh foods. No potato chips or junk snacks or microwave-and-eat meals for her. She recommends choosing butter over margarine because the latter can contribute to higher cholesterol and higher triglycerides.
If your goal is to keep on living as long as you can, keep DeMarco`s maxim in mind whenever you`re grocery shopping (and be sure to pass it on to your patients). She says, "Just remember `the longer the shelf-life, the shorter your life.` "
If anyone already has or is in the process of getting their master`s in nutrition and would like information on opening up their own Designs for Health practice, they can call (800) 367-4325.
Judith E. Sulik, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH, based in Bridgeport, Conn. She just finished writing her second cookbook, No sink? No counters? No problem! Interested readers can inquire about the "one-pot" recipes featured in cookbook by contacting Finely Finished Press, 60 Acton Road, Bridgeport, CT 06606; the cookbook costs $7.95.
Where to find additional nutrition information
Federal Food and Drug Administration
200 C Street SW
Washington, DC 20204
International Food Information Council Foundation
1100 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite 430
Washington, DC 20036
National Council Against Health Fraud
PO Box 1276
Loma Linda, CA 92354
Fax (909) 824-4838
American Association for the Advancement of Science
1200 New York Ave NW
Washington DC 20005
Institute of Food Science and Technology
Institute of Food Technologists
American Dietetics Association
Shape Up America!