The decile 1 school that quit sugar and improved its pupils' teeth
Research has shown how ditching sugary drinks in favour of water has a tangible impact on cavities in children's teeth.
In 2007, decile 1 Yendarra School in South Auckland adopted a 'water only' policy for drinks and asked parents to provide healthy lunches made up of salads, sandwiches, fruit, water and milk.
Over seven years the average number of cavities dropped 'significantly' and the number of extractions due to decay halved, according to a study by Auckland Regional Public Health Service.
"Sugar is the most important determinant of rotten teeth," lead author Dr Simon Thornley of Auckland Regional Public Health Service said.
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Thornley and his team examined 3813 records of children who attended dental exams in the schools of interest and found the number of cavities in primary and adult teeth was 0.37 lower for Yendarra's pupils, when compared to schools that were similar.
"It is significant because it means basically there's 0.4 less decayed teeth per child compared to comparable schools," public health dentist and veteran anti-sugar campaigner Dr Rob Beaglehole said.
Yendarra School principal Susan Dunlop was still on holiday on Wednesday and could not be reached.
The majority of the school's pupils are Maori and Pasifika. It has a 1a decile rating.
"What that means in laymans terms, on the socio-economic scale, it's the lowest of the low," Dunlop said in a Tedx talk in Manukau, Auckland, in 2015.
The school had historically been plagued by poor attendance, bad behaviour and food choices, Dunlop said.
Since the switch, Dunlop has reported behaviour, achievement levels and attendance has improved, and there has been a reduction in skin infections, as well as better dental health.
She expected a raft of parent complaints when the initiative began, but the school received just one.
"The kids lost so much weight because they weren't having sugary drinks that they had to bring in smaller uniforms," Beaglehole said.
Beaglehole and Thornley both want to see a 'water only' policy implemented by all schools.
Thornley said the strict nutrition policy was "likely to reduce health-care costs associated with the treatment of cavities".
"I think we worked out we spend about $20m a year in NZ putting kids under general anesthetic to treat the sugar addiction. To me it's totally unnecessary."
"But because we are swimming in sugar as a society, that's the price we have to pay.
"If we can use schools and early childhood centres to get the message through, that's great."
Nationally, 5500 children aged under 8 had to have their teeth pulled under general anaesthetic in 2015, Beaglehole said.
"The number one reason children are admitted to hospital in New Zealand is to get their teeth out under general anaesthetic.
"Dentists are sick and tired of this pain and suffering they are seeing daily.
"I've taken out 10 teeth on an 18-month-old who was still in nappies and had been consuming Coke in a baby bottle."