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30 January 2014

Link teeth with our health

I had a conversation about health literacy with Dr Moira Smith. Moira is a research fellow and PhD candidate in public health at the University of Otago in Wellington (UOW) and Deputy Director of the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at UOW.

The link between the health of our teeth and the health of our bodies
Moira is a dentist who knows that our teeth and gums mirror the health of our bodies. With 20 years’ experience in clinical practice, and her public health hat on, Moira promotes a ‘life course approach’ to dental care. That is, we teach children how to look after their teeth, make healthy and informed choices about what we eat and drink, and see the dentist once a year as a normal part of our healthcare — for life.

In the past, we didn’t connect the health of our teeth with the health of our bodies. Now we’re learning that our oral health in childhood is our oral health for life. Looking after our teeth and gums is an investment with good returns. It’s cheaper for individuals and for New Zealand than getting our teeth filled. And it’s cheaper than treating whole body diseases like obesity and cardiovascular disease. Researchers say that the bacteria that cause plaque on our teeth are the same family as the bacteria that cause plaque in our blood vessels.

Families need good health literacy to make good choices about food and drink
Health literacy is the knowledge we use about our health and our environment to make decisions about how we live.

The choices families make about their food and drinks, and how those products are promoted through sport, are among Moira’s special interests in public health. She says ‘The health literacy of families is an important component in their choices about what to eat and drink.’ However, she is concerned for the public’s health, and for children’s health in particular, when the voice of a brand, fuelled by advertising and marketing, is bigger than a family’s health literacy voice.

Our food environments are society’s environments
Our ‘food environment’ is not just one thing. It’s a complex web of interactions. Politics and people’s behaviour play a part. Current government thinking is to provide more education about nutrition, then allow personal choice and an individual approach.

But the commercial environment doesn’t make it easy for people to take an individual approach. As a society, we still have a lot to learn about making healthy choices. Reading food labels for example, requires a high level of health literacy — and good eyesight to read the print. So here’s the gap. We need more than good health literacy to make decisions about what our bodies and our children need. We also need critical thinking and good media literacy, so that we can be discerning about the marketing and promotion of food and drinks.

Here are some of the factors that get in the way of families making healthy choices.
  • Some regulations guide how manufacturers promote food, but the current regulations don’t make it easy for families to make healthy choices. 
  • Nutrition information on food labels is often hard to read because of the font size and colour. 
  • We’re trusting — ‘Food is on the supermarket shelf; therefore it must be OK’. 
View Moira’s talk at the University of Otago, Wellington, on New Zealand’s oral health 

Read the Ministry of Health’s health and nutrition guidelines for young people. 

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