Dr Helen Voronina with her feathered friend, Rocky

Dr Voronina: On ethics and good health

Melbourne surgical and cosmetic dentist, Dr Helen Voronina, was born into a meat-eating family, but, over time, she had a big change of heart. Today she runs a busy dental practice in Prahran but she also enjoys a little ballroom and latin dancing or hiking when she can.

A firm believer in ethical and sustainable dentistry she says life for her now is very different from the way things once were.

“We ate meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. For a long time, animal cruelty played on my mind, and eventually, I put my foot down. I announced to my family that I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore.

“My parents were worried I had an eating disorder, but this was only coming from a place of concern. Nevertheless, my family and friends regarded me as something of a freak for my decision, so initially, I was shy to speak out about it.”

That changed a lot in the following years, however, and now she is much more outspoken.

“Of course, these days, being vegan is no longer considered a taboo. The vegan lifestyle attracts educated and thoughtful people from all walks of life. You could say it has become somewhat of a bit of a novelty these days. People are fascinated by it and want to know more.”

When it comes to dining out, Dr Helen admits she doesn’t tend to eat out at restaurants all that often. However, she appreciates that the rise in the number of vegan restaurants has made it easier for many people to transition to veganism without seriously affecting their lifestyle. However, and because she takes such a particular interest in the health benefits of a plant-based lifestyle, she has one burning desire.

“I wish more restaurants would offer whole-food options, without added oil and sugar. I would be a regular visitor to vegan restaurants then.”

Wider issues at stake

But, she adds, there are wider issues that are much more important, one of them being climate change.

“Climate change should be a concern for everyone. It’s easy to live our lives with our eyes shut, but what are we doing to ourselves? We are destroying the very home that we rely on for shelter and resources. We are sabotaging our future!

“I’ve read a paper on how as animals, we are very good at detecting fast approaching threats but not so good at recognizing slow ones. So, this explains how the climate crisis is not concerning us much because the threat is too distant to grasp.

“We worry about our social life, our work, our retirement without realizing that those ‘worries’ would be utterly irrelevant if the earth can no longer sustain us. Even if you’re not concerned about the welfare of animals, going vegan is the single most significant thing any individual can do to change the future direction of humanity immediately.”

As a dentist, Dr Helen is in a unique position to counsel people on their nutrition.

Reviewing the whole picture

“I don’t only look at patients’ diet from the dental point of view, but also for their overall health and well-being. I perform many implant surgeries at the practice, and to have long term success with implants, the person undergoing this procedure needs to be in good general health.

“This includes good cardiac health and no diabetes or smoking. Evidence repeatedly points to a plant-based diet as the only lifestyle that can prevent and reverse coronary heart disease and diabetes. So, when is a better time to revisit your lifestyle than when your health is directly affected?

“Many of my patients know that I am vegan, and this inspires many conversations. Over the years, I’ve been surprised by how many people have considered veganism but have been too scared to transition. With enough support and encouragement from our health practitioners, we can all make a tremendous change to our health, our one and only planet, and its inhabitants.”

But, when it comes down to good dental health, Dr Helen says vegans face the same problem as almost everyone else.

“Studies have shown high consumption of fruit can increase the incidence of dental caries (decay) and erosion (acid wear). This doesn’t mean that you should reduce your fruit intake as it’s incredibly nutritious. The same thing that leads to decay in omnivores is what leads to decay in vegans – sugar!

“It’s always the sugar! So, my advice applies to both vegans and non-vegans. We need to watch the frequency of our sugar intake. In other words, if you consume sugar (including fruit, juice, fruit smoothies, or any sugary syrups even if naturally derived) frequently throughout the day, you will inevitably develop tooth decay. Therefore, to keep our pearly whites healthy, we must limit sugary foods to once or twice a day, rather than snacking on them throughout the day. Also, stay away from lemon water – it will ruin your teeth!”

Calcium and dairy

Sugar is bad enough, but one of her biggest concerns centres around calcium and dairy.

“From childhood, we are told that the calcium in dairy is essential for growing strong bones and teeth. It’s as if our teeth will become chalky and brittle if we don’t drink milk. What is lacking from this message, however, is whether dairy is the best source of calcium.

“Packed with bovine oestrogens, antibiotics, lipids, protein, growth factors (IGF-I) sodium and growth factors, dairy milk is the perfect liquid to rapidly turn a baby calf into a big cow. However, it is not designed for nourishing humans.

“The calcium contained in dairy is one of the health benefits associated with dairy. So, before we consider whether it is necessary to consume dairy to obtain calcium, let’s consider why calcium is so important.

“Although teeth and bones are quite similar in that they are both composed of calcium, phosphate and water, there are some significant differences with regards to how they function.”

She says bones are a dynamic tissue that renews continuously throughout our lives, and calcium is essential for this process.

“This makes it important to maintain an adequate daily intake of calcium for optimal bone health. Teeth, on the other hand, develop during our early years, when it is crucial children consume enough calcium in order to form strong, healthy teeth. Once they erupt through the gum, enamel (the surface hard tissue of teeth) become avascular, meaning there is no blood supply to the enamel.

“Dentine (the underlying hard tissue of the teeth) has dentinal tubules, which in a way serve as capillaries to supply nutrients to the teeth. Although teeth continue to heal and remodel through apposition on new hard tissue on the inside of the tooth, most calcium and phosphate is dynamically dissolved and deposited into hard tooth structure through the surface enamel.

“In other words, the oral environment is even more important than how much calcium you consume. Frequent sugar consumption with tip the balance and cause calcium to be drawn out of the enamel. Conversely, a healthy diet, low in simple sugars, will favour calcium deposition.

“Whilst these processes are at play, you do not need a great deal of calcium to maintain healthy teeth in adulthood; the role of calcium in maintaining healthy bones should not be underestimated, though. A lack of calcium can affect bones throughout the body, resulting in low bone density and osteoporosis.

Common misconception

“Despite a common misconception, osteoporosis doesn’t only affect women. Interestingly, populations in countries where little dairy is consumed have a lower incidence of osteoporosis and hip fractures in contrast to Western countries, where dairy consumption is encouraged. Although osteoporosis can affect jawbones, the rest of the skeleton is more susceptible to this condition.”

So how much calcium does a healthy adult need?

“The recommended daily intake of calcium varies depending on several factors such as age, gender, or whether you are pregnant or breastfeeding. It can even be influenced by your location. For instance, in some Asian countries, the recommended daily intake is only 600mg per day, half the 1200mg recommended in Western countries.”

She says it should also be noted that calcium is not the only nutrient you should be worried about for healthy bones. It is also essential to make sure you get enough phosphate (from phosphorus) and vitamin D.

“Phosphorus can be obtained from protein-rich foods such as nuts, legumes, seeds and grains but is not generally recommended to be taken as a supplement.

“Vitamin D increases the efficiency of calcium absorption in the body. One of the easiest sources of vitamin D is sunlight, as it synthesized in the skin upon exposure to UV radiation. Of course, the benefits must be balanced against the risks, so avoid spending prolonged periods in the sun, particularly when the sun is strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, and make sure you apply sunscreen. If you are unable to boost your vitamin D through sun exposure, you can take a supplement instead.

“Another important factor in keeping our bones healthy is preventing calcium loss. One of the best ways to do this is through daily weight-bearing exercise and, importantly, reducing coffee intake and stopping smoking.

“Overall, it should be emphasized is that calcium is most certainly important for our health. You sometimes hear that vegans do not need as much calcium due to their overall high nutrition intake. This is not supported by scientific evidence, and it is important that vegans put as much thought as non-vegans into their daily calcium intake. Nuts, legumes and green leafy vegetables are excellent sources of dietary calcium, without the nasties of dairy.”

Contact Dr Helen

For full details on the professional
services Dr Voronina
provides go to her website at
www.drhelen.com.au

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