Expanding your patients’ nutritional horizons

Dec. 1, 2011
We all remember learning the importance of nutritional counseling. I have the pleasure of knowing a hygienist who advanced her education ...

by Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS
[email protected]

We all remember learning the importance of nutritional counseling. I have the pleasure of knowing a hygienist who advanced her education by taking courses in contemporary nutrition and earning certification. She integrates these concepts regularly into her patient care dynamic. She even has her own clients and presents seminars.

Lori Saporito and I were dental hygiene classmates. She and her husband, Dan, opened a practice in Hopewell, N.J., and Lori has practiced dental hygiene there for much of her professional life. Five years ago, she decided to formally further her education in nutrition to feed (pun intended) her passion for the subject.

For three years, I have brought Lori in to lecture to dental hygiene students in my BCC Periodontology II class. Think: Nutrition’s impact in the treatment of inflammation! What is exciting for dental hygienists who practice clinically is that we don’t need to be certified in nutrition to share basic concepts with our patients. We can still help them to expand their nutritional horizons beyond routine sugar/caries link counsel. How?

Lori’s overall message to hygienists: “The dental hygienist should keep in mind that it’s not complicated. In summary, you want to get patients to eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, as well as more water, less dairy, less packaged food, less sugar, less alcohol, less caffeine. If we can get that message across, it’s a success. For unhealthy people, it’s good to add more info, but still ... the above makes or breaks it.”

It is helpful to know how to segue into nutritional advice based on individuals’ needs. Here are five samplings of counsel we can offer to patients to improve their overall health. These are suggestions from Lori (first and foremost) and myself (an enthusiastic novice!).

  • For starters, we can ask the patient if she ate breakfast that morning, and what did it consist of? If she skipped it, talk about the importance of breaking the overnight fast, and fueling the body for the day ahead. The downward spiral routine of eating late at night, then feeling full by morning, and skipping breakfast (which ultimately leads to weight gain) is something many can relate to.
  • How many of our patients suffer from xerostomia because of necessary medications? When we see evidence of dry mouth, it provides a segue into the recommendation of drinking more water. Slug it down, if need be, and do it at room temperature. By the time we feel thirsty, we are already experiencing dehydration.
  • Invariably, people comment that they have cheese/dairy for strong teeth. Use the opportunity to let them know that if dairy agrees with them, they can have small amounts. But if they have frequent colds, sinus issues, skin problems, and whatever else they mentioned during their health update, they may want to get their calcium and other minerals from the same source that cows get theirs — plants.
  • Eat more servings of fruit and vegetables. This is the best way for us to get our needed minerals. I love to talk to patients about how my daily big bowl of salad gives me four to five servings of veggies. I detail exactly what it contains, because most don’t realize what actually constitutes an actual serving. The details make them realize it’s easier than previously thought.
  • Bask daily in the glow of the sunlight. For much of the year, it will supply us with our necessary vitamin D. I hear regularly now from patients who have been told by their physicians that they are deficient.

Since I have begun to place more emphasis on nutrition chairside, I have become gratified to note that people are extremely receptive. I have had only one patient ask me if I was trying to be a nutritionist. I laughed, and reminded her that the mouth is connected to the body. Nourish and keep the body healthy, and it will invariably manifest in the mouth! Onward we go; it’s in our heart’s core!

Eileen Morrissey, RDH, MS, is a practicing clinician, speaker, and writer. She is an adjunct dental hygiene faculty member at Burlington County College. Eileen offers CE forums to doctors, hygienists, and their teams. Reach her at [email protected] or 609-259-8008. Visit her website at www.eileenmorrissey.com.

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