The Dental Diet

 

According to Carole Palmer, G69, clear communication is critical to the work of a Registered Dietitian. To illustrate, She brought out a plastic apple, a faux piece of bread and glass of milk. She explained that Frances Stern, a Boston schoolteacher, created the first outpatient nutrition clinic in the nation at the Boston Floating Hospital in the 1920s, and used food models there to overcome language barriers.

“Many of the people who went to Floating Hospital were recent immigrants, and they didn’t speak any English,” she said. “And she realized that they didn’t necessarily know how to choose a healthy diet from American food. So she developed these methods to teach families of young children how to eat a nutritious diet, even when they couldn’t speak the language.”

Today, the Frances Stern Nutrition Center is still the home of outpatient and inpatient nutrition services at Tufts Medical Center. And Palmer, professor and head of the Division of Nutrition and Oral Health Promotion in the Dental School’s Department of Comprehensive Care, has spent her career following in Stern’s footsteps by translating nutrition for those who do not “speak the language”–be they students, other professionals, or the public.

For the past 48 years, Palmer has been building bridges between dental medicine and nutrition at Tufts, allowing both groups to benefit from each other’s knowledge. Palmer has instructed thousands of students in general nutrition science, oral health promotion, and the skills needed to communicate effectively with patients about nutrition’s importance in oral health. Palmer also serves as director of the masters’ component of the combined Masters/Dietetic Internship Program (MS/DI) at the Tufts’ Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and the Frances Stern Nutrition Center. She supervises the dietetic interns when they come to the dental school for a three-week oral health rotation, working with students and their patients in the general clinic. Her mission, as she sees it, is “promoting dentistry and nutrition as allies in oral health.” The third edition of her textbook, Diet and Nutrition in Oral Health, a how-to manual for diet screening and guidance for oral health professionals, was published in 2016.

“Dentists believe nutrition is important, but my research found that if they don’t talk to their patients about it, it’s because they don’t feel comfortable,” she said. “So my job here at the school is to make dental students feel comfortable talking about nutrition for general health, and specific aspects of diet and nutrition related to oral health.”

Palmer’s entire career has been spent at Tufts. While completing the masters/dietetic internship program, she came to the attention of Abraham Nizel, A38, D40, DG52, who had pioneered integrating nutrition assessment with dental practice. She became an instructor at the dental school after graduating from the program in 1969, and achieved tenure  at the age of 27–the first woman non-dentist to do so. She then took over for Nizel after he retired. She also found time to complete her doctorate over “nights and weekends for years” at Boston University. She said that she was never very tempted to leave her work at Tufts.

“Every time a job or opportunity opened up that looked interesting or promising, when I looked into it I would realize that it wasn’t as interesting or promising as opportunities here,” she said. “The beauty of this job is that it was interprofessional before we knew exactly what that was.”

The American Society for Nutrition recently honored Palmer for her lifetime of work with the 2017 Roland L. Weinsier Award for Excellence in Medical/Dental Nutrition Education. The award, which she received on April 23, was given in recognition of Palmer’s outstanding career and innovations. She said that while she appreciated the professional recognition, one of the greatest joys of her career is to meet and chat with returning alums who talk about how her instruction affected their practice.

“That’s really important to me, because it means that what I do has an impact,” she said. “My mission is valued, and, I hope, carried on by the people coming after me…We’ve always tried to be role models for nutrition and oral health from the very beginning.”