Cheese and ice cream aren’t just delicious, they’re actually great for your teeth. That’s because dairy foods contain a key nutrient called calcium which helps your teeth grow strong and healthy. For this installment of Food for Thought, we talked with Terri Verason, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Director of Nutrition Education for Dairy Council of Arizona. Terri regularly works with health care professionals, like dentists, to provide nutrition education related to oral health.
JA: Thank you so much for chatting with us! Can you tell us a little bit about your background? How did you become interested in food and nutrition?
TV: Healthy eating wasn’t a main focus of my family growing up, but it also wasn’t a negative thing. For me, it was just an interest in taking care of ourselves and thinking about how we can improve that. So, I’ve always been interested in health and nutrition. I’ve been a registered dietitian nutritionist for 30 years, 25 of them have been with Dairy Council. It’s been a fabulous place to work. Dairy Council is a nutrition education organization and we’re funded by dairy farmers in the state.
Our goal is to show how important dairy foods are for a balanced diet and how they benefit you. And also, we want to show how well dairy farmers take care of their land and their animals and that the milk they produce is healthy, wholesome and safe. So, it’s been a great avenue to talk about not just nutrition but to learn about agriculture. Through my job I’ve been able to learn about a lot of different types of agriculture. We really are blessed that we have farmers who produce food for the rest of us so the rest of us can be bloggers and dentists and hygienists and dietitians and all kinds of careers. Because we have farmers and agriculture that has been so diversified, people are free to purchase their food and pursue other careers.
JA: Speaking of careers, can you tell us what you can do as a dietitian and more specifically, what your role entails with the Dairy Council of Arizona?
TV: There are so many avenues a registered dietitian nutritionist can take. A lot of people think about working in a hospital or school, but there are actually all kinds of avenues. It could be working in education, communications or media. If you’re working in education, it could be with public health agencies or working with consumers or working with students at the community college or university. It could be in research, there’s so much research related to nutrition. And also, agriculture. Farmers are really good at what they do but might not be good at telling their story.
My role with Dairy Council is to work with professional health organizations, agricultural organizations and classroom teachers and educational organizations. I essentially provide education and resources to make their jobs easier. Everything we do is evidence-based. It all has to be overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture and approved so that it’s all information backed by research.
JA: We know you work with dentists and oral health care professionals to educate them about nutrition in relation to oral health. Can you tell us in a nutshell why and how the food we eat plays a role in our oral health?
TV: The food you eat affects the environment of your mouth. And that affects your overall health. Vitamin C is very important for healthy gums. Things like tomatoes and citrus are great for your gums. For teeth, the calcium and phosphorus rich foods are very important. Those minerals are very important for making sure your teeth and your bones are as strong as they can be.
For children, it’s important to start talking about oral health and good nutrition when they’re young. We developed a Dental Defenders coloring book that helps teach kids why calcium is important for building strong teeth and also that brushing often and visiting the dentist will help fight against “dental destroyers” like cavities.
JA: There are so many benefits to eating a well-balanced diet. Knowing that those calciumrich foods specifically help maintain strong teeth, can you talk more about the role of calcium and dairy in our diets?
TV: Calcium is important for bone and dental health. It’s also important for cardiovascular health. Dairy foods go way beyond just calcium for good health. Dairy foods provide 9 essential nutrients that your body needs. They also contain a lot of protein and Vitamin D, which are important for overall health. Dairy foods also contain Vitamin A which helps keep your skin and eyes healthy and some B vitamins.
JA: What do you love about working as a dietitian? What brings you the most joy or puts the biggest smile on your face each day?
TV: I get to do so many different things. One thing we’ve been doing the past 5 or 6 years is taking people on farm tours so they can see what happens on a farm and how farmers take care of their land and their animals. It’s been totally eye opening for me. I’m a suburban girl.
Things like working with students, working with interns. We have a culinary lab program with the for high school students. We get 20 students together on Saturdays in the fall and we do a culinary lab with them. They have to create recipes, analyze them to make sure they meet nutritional guidelines. Then they come to a commercial kitchen and prepare their recipes. We get photos taken and put cookbooks together. Working with these students is awesome. Our goal is to help them understand the role that dairy foods play. They can then take this knowledge back to their schools and teach other kids why breakfast is important or how to add cheese to new recipes.
JA: On the flip side, what challenges you each day?
TV: Lately, it’s kind of the whole virtual thing. Working from home, being more isolated. We are trying to coordinate a farm tour and having to coordinate a virtual farm tour has been difficult. How do you jump in and do that? Doing sessions virtually, I did one recently for a group of students at Paradise Valley Community College. Normally I’d go in and get to know them a little bit and it’s just much flatter on Zoom than it is in person. The whole networking piece is missing.
JA: It’s certainly been a big adjustment for most people who are suddenly at home now. Do you have any advice for home cooks who might feel like now is the time to incorporate more healthy cooking into their lives?
TV: I think my first thought would be, get your kids involved in cooking. There are all different things they can do at each age. Have younger kids measure things or pour or stir or hold the mixer. Older kids can chop and cut and baste and use the oven.
Getting kids interested in cooking helps them to learn to eat what you make. Kids are more interested in eating something that they were involved in preparing. For example, a yogurt parfait bar, they can pour the yogurt in their cup or bowl, choose from a variety of fruits or seeds or granola to top it with. It’s such a great, healthy snack. Dairy foods have been shown to reduce the incidence of cavities or caries because of the different types of proteins in them and the way they help reduce the acids in the mouth. Any kind of dairy snack is going to be helpful and reduce the risk of cavities.
JA: June is National Dairy Month. Do you have any tips to add more dairy into our diets without going overboard on calories?
TV: I really enjoy using yogurt in a variety of things. I’ll make a yogurt salad dressing with herbs and know that I’m getting an extra dose of dairy. Cheese is just delicious. Any way to use cheese is great. I did this little recipe where you take grape tomatoes and cut them and stuff them with cream cheese and herbs and it kind of ends up looking like little tulips. Another idea is blue cheese grapes. It’s just a little appetizer where you make a mixture of cream cheese and blue cheese and Tabasco and smash it around a grape and then roll that in chopped nuts. It ends up looking like a little cheese ball. Smoothies are a great idea too. There’s also a handy resource, which is basically 33 Tasty Snack Ideas you can create at home using dairy.
JA: Those sound so perfect and yummy for the warm weather we have here. Something that doesn’t sound so yummy, bacon-flavored floss. Would you ever try it?
TV: I guess I would try it once, but my initial thought is I prefer my floss minty. I’d be adventurous enough to try it once, but my other concern is it would make me hungry.
Terri’s Recipe for Blue Cheese Wrapped Grapes
- 4 oz softened cream cheese
- 6 oz crumbled blue cheese
- Dash of Tabasco, optional
- Dash of port wine, optional
- ½ cup finely chopped pecans or almonds
- 1 bunch seedless red or green grapes
Directions: In a small bowl, combine cream cheese, blue cheese and port wine (if using) and Tabasco sauce (if using). Wrap the cheese mixture around each grape. Roll grapes in chopped nuts. Cover and chill grapes for 30 to 60 minutes or until serving time.