A child’s general level of health often dictates his or her oral health, and vice versa. Therefore, supplying children with a well-balanced, healthy diet is more likely to lead to healthier teeth and gums.
A good diet provides the child with the many different nutrients he or she needs to grow. These nutrients are necessary for gum tissue development, strong bones, and to protect the child against certain illnesses.
According to the food pyramid, children need vegetables, fruits, meat, grains, beans, and dairy products to grow properly. These different food groups should be eaten in balance for optimal results.
How does my child’s diet affect his or her teeth?
Almost every snack contains at least one type of sugar. Most often, parents are tempted to throw away candy and chocolate snacks – without realizing that many fruit snacks contain one (if not several) types of sugar or carbohydrate. When sugar-rich snacks are eaten, the sugar content attracts oral bacteria. The bacteria feast on food remnants left on or around the teeth. Eventually, feasting bacteria produce enamel-attacking acids.
When tooth enamel is constantly exposed to acid, it begins to erode – the result is childhood tooth decay. If tooth decay is left untreated for prolonged periods, acids begin to attack the soft tissue (gums) and even the underlying jawbone. Eventually, the teeth become prematurely loose or fall out, causing problems for emerging adult teeth – a condition known as childhood periodontal disease.
Regular checkups and cleanings at the dentist’s office are an important line of defense against tooth decay. However, implementing good dietary habits and minimizing sugary food and drink intake as part of the “home care routine” are equally important.
How can I alter my child’s diet?
The dentist is able to offer advice and dietary counseling for children and parents. Most often, parents are advised to opt for healthier snacks, for example, carrot sticks, reduced fat yoghurt, and cottage cheese. In addition, dentists may recommend a fluoride supplement to protect tooth enamel – especially if the child lives in an area where fluoride is not routinely added to community water.
Parents should also ensure that children are not continuously snacking – even in a healthy manner. Lots of snacking means that sugars are constantly attaching themselves to teeth, and tooth enamel is constantly under attack. It is also impractical to try to clean the teeth after every snack, if “every snack” means every ten minutes!
Finally, parents are advised to opt for faster snacks. Mints and hard candies remain in the mouth for a long period of time - meaning that sugar is coating the teeth for longer. If candy is necessary, opt for a sugar-free variety, or a variety that can be eaten expediently.
Should my child eat starch-rich foods?
It is important for the child to eat a balanced diet, so some carbohydrates and starches are necessary. Starch-rich foods generally include pretzels, chips, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Since starches and carbohydrates break down to form sugar, it is best that they are eaten as part of a meal (when saliva production is higher), than as a standalone snack. Provide plenty of water at mealtimes (rather than soda) to help the child rinse sugary food particles off the teeth.
As a final dietary note, avoid feeding your child sticky foods if possible. It is incredibly difficult to remove stickiness from the teeth - especially in younger children who tend not to be as patient during brushing.