Oral hygiene for kids and pediatric dental care means more than brushing teeth and visiting a dentist for kids. Nutrition is a significant factor in both the formation of healthy teeth and the prevention of cavities. In fact, tooth decay and dental cavities are 20 times more common than diabetes and five times more common than childhood asthma. Therefore, preventing cavities should be an important focus when maintaining your child’s health. Here are five ways dental health and nutrition intersect:
Sticky candy, as well as dried fruit, honey, and syrup, sticks to teeth and is not washed away by saliva. The naturally occurring bacteria in the mouth feeds on the sugars in these foods, creating acids as a byproduct. This acid (rather than the sugar or the bacteria) causes cavities by eating away at the tooth enamel.
Fruit juices have received a lot of attention over the past few years regarding their role in both obesity and the damage they can do to a child’s teeth. While most fruit juices contain a lot of nutrients, fruit juices lack the fiber contained in whole fruit that helps to scrub the sugars from the teeth. Moreover, some fruit juices are artificially sweetened with sugar.
In fact, fruit juices suffer from the same problem that makes soda pop so detrimental to the teeth – sugary liquids can get between teeth and into areas that are difficult to clean. Children, not always the best brushers and flossers, can miss these areas. Even though this sugar comes from fruit, the bacteria that cause tooth decay do not care. The recommendation now is that children consume the majority of their fruits as whole fruit and that:
Dental plaque, as gross as it may sound, is a biofilm of bacteria that is so thick it can be seen and felt on the surface of the teeth. This biofilm can contain anywhere from 300 to 1,000 different varieties of bacteria, not all of which are bad, but many of which ferment sugars and produce the acid responsible for cavities. While the bacterial population in the mouth can number in the billions, brushing can reduce the amount of dental plaque by more than half.
Vegetables contain water and fiber, both of which clean plaque from the teeth. Aged cheeses (but not so much for processed American cheeses) promote the production of saliva, which also cleans plaque from the teeth.
Fluoride binds to tooth enamel, which inhibits dental plaque from sticking to the teeth and aids remineralization of calcium into tooth material. While fluoride is beneficial to everyone, it is particularly beneficial for children under six because the fluoride becomes integrated into the structure of the permanent teeth. Thus, a key part of pediatric dental care is ensuring a sufficient intake of fluoride.
Over 60% of communities in the United States fluoridate their drinking water. In these communities, tap water is critical to dental health. Moreover, tap water (as distinguished from milk and fruit juice), contains no sugar and helps to wash away food that may stick to the teeth.
As with anything that children eat, you should read the labels carefully so you know what your child is eating and drinking. Dairy products, like milk and yogurt, are no exception. Generally speaking, dairy products are rich in calcium, and calcium is necessary for remineralization of teeth when the enamel naturally breaks down.
However, some yogurt, particularly those yogurts marketed for children, contain large amounts of sugar. Even milk contains a level of sugar that has led dentists to recommend against leaving a bottle of milk in the crib where the baby can drink all night, bathing his or her teeth in sugar. On the other hand, the lactic acid in milk has been shown to slow the growth of the bacteria in dental plaque, so the news is not all bad.
Nutrition is key to a child’s development, including the development of the child’s teeth.