Fad Diets: The Unknown Dangers you Should Warn your Patients about

August 7, 2012

Given the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, it would be surprising if dentists across the country were not encountering patients following such lifestyles.

Given the popularity of vegetarian and vegan diets, it would be surprising if dentists across the country were not encountering patients following such lifestyles.

But while those diets can have healthy benefits, dentists are aware they can also be harmful to oral health unless patients take steps to ensure they are getting the nutrients they need.

Though it can vary, a vegetarian diet typically doesn't include meat, poultry or fish. Vegans take in no animal products at all.

A 2008 study by the website Vegetarian Times indicated that 3.2 percent of U.S. adults, or 7.3 million people, follow a vegetarian-based diet. Approximately 0.5 percent, or 1 million, of those are vegans. In addition, 10 percent of U.S. adults, or 22.8 million people, said they largely follow a vegetarian-inclined diet.

Dr. Sam G.  Shamoon, a spokesperson for the Academy of General Dentistry, who practices in Berkley, Mich., said only about five percent of his patients follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. But many of those people jump into the diet without ever seeking advice from a nutritionist.

According to Dr. Shamoon, these diets do not automatically translate into a reduction in sugary or even lower fat foods despite commonly held beliefs that these diets are healthier ways of eating-particularly when patients haven’t sought advice from a nutritionist or done their homework.

“The western world’s idea of a vegetarian diet is cheese pizza with a lot of white flour and sugar in it,” Dr. Shamoon said. “It’s not that nutritious. If you eat potato chips and don’t brush your teeth, that breaks down into sugar.”

Patients who have committed to the vegetarian or vegan lifestyle and are convinced of the health benefits may not always be receptive to hearing a different message from their dentists.

“It can be very difficult to talk to them about it,” Dr. Shamoon said. “If people have a lot of cavities I talk to them about their diet. I recommend a less meat, less acid-forming diet.”

In his experience, Shamoon said people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet feel renewed energy and other health benefits for about three years, but the lack of proper nutrition can catch up with them if they are not careful. One of the risks is periodontal disease from a lack of Vitamins C and D and calcium.

“If they don’t get enough animal protein they start consuming their own muscle,” he said. 

A lack of vitamins C and D and calcium can cause teeth to soften over time, which makes them more prone to tooth decay and periodontal disease. 

Teenagers and children who become vegetarians without knowing enough about their nutritional needs are at the greatest risk of not getting the nutrition they need. Also, some vegetarians, especially vegans who do not consume any food of animal origin, are at risk for nutritional deficiencies in vitamin B2 and vitamin B12 as well as calcium and vitamin D, according to the Academy of General Dentistry. 

The AGD recommends that anyone considering adopting a vegetarian diet seek counseling from his or her physician or a nutritionist to learn about substituting foods to get all the necessary nutrients. And because diet is a crucial element in an individual’s medical history, patients should always inform their dentist if they follow vegetarian or other special diets.

Dr. Shamoon said he encourages vegetarian and vegan patients to take steps to protect their oral health, but what they do with the information is up to them.

“All you can do is present them with the facts that you need to balance your whole body,” Dr. Shamoon said. “I try to educate them. I spend a lot of time talking to them about it. I recommend supplements and encourage them to find their own nutritional provider.”