Research shows a clear link between nutrition and oral health. Food plays a key role in tooth decay and gum disease, as well as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, which also have important implications for oral health.
Dentists have frequent contact with patients. In fact, people see dentists more often than any other health professional, particularly when they are not sick. For this reason, dentists can play a critical role in engaging their patients about health promotion, including healthy eating.
“Pediatric dentists, in particular, have a unique opportunity to discuss dietary choices with children and their families,” said Amr Moursi, DDS, PhD, professor and chair of pediatric dentistry at NYU College of Dentistry.
“These interactions could prevent a child from having health problems later in life.”
Recognizing the importance of nutrition in oral health, nationwide efforts have incorporated nutrition into dental education. NYU College of Dentistry covers nutrition and health promotion in its curriculum as early as the fall of dental students’ first year.
But traditionally, dental and nutrition students have had little opportunity to work together. In 2005, NYU College of Dentistry decided to address this: it began a collaboration with NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Nutrition and Food Studies to integrate dietetic interns into the care provided at NYU’s Pediatric Dentistry Clinic.
“It’s clear that nutrition and oral health professionals should be working together. We have so much in common between these two fields because what you consume affects your health,” said Lisa Sasson, MS, RD, clinical professor of nutrition and director of the dietetic internship at NYU Steinhardt. “For example, sugary beverages and foods are the main cause of pediatric obesity, but they are also the main source of dental caries.”
Currently, all NYU nutrition students complete a one-week internship in the Pediatric Dentistry Clinic. The dietetic interns collaborate with dental students pediatric dentistry residents to provide patients and their families with on-site nutrition education and counseling.
Dietetic interns meet with parents and caregivers in the waiting room to engage with them about healthy eating. They may offer healthy snack ideas or spot dietary patterns that could be problematic, such as a young child drinking juice all day long and constantly exposing their teeth to sugar. Dental students and residents also invite dietetic interns into their appointments to talk with children about healthy eating.
In addition to providing nutrition education in the clinic, dietetic interns join NYU College of Dentistry in outreach visits to Head Start programs in New York City. There, they teach preschool-age children about oral hygiene and how different foods affect their oral health through fun activities.
The collaboration is based on a model where learning goes both ways—dietetic interns learn about oral health in the classroom and through hands-on experience in the clinic, and dental students learn about nutrition through interacting with the dietetic interns and nutrition-focused seminars led by the interns.
The NYU Dentistry and NYU Steinhardt faculty involved stress the important of health professionals working together across disciplines. Once the nutrition and dentistry trainees graduate and are practicing independently, they can draw on this increased knowledge of oral health and nutrition and can refer their patients to other professionals as needed. For instance, a pediatric dentist may treat a child at risk for obesity and suggest they see a dietitian, or a dietitian working with someone with an eating disorder may refer them to a dentist to address tooth decay.
“Multidisciplinary and interprofessional care is the future of health care,” said Sasson. “I think this type of collaboration should be in every dietetic internship and every dental program.”
The collaboration has been so successful that the pediatric dental clinic has hired a nutritionist to work there alongside dental students and residents.