Did you know that the foods your child eats and the beverages they drink have a direct effect on the health of their teeth? The health of their teeth also has a direct effect on their diet and subsequent nutrition.
What Effect Does Oral Health Have on My Child’s Nutrition?
Many parents do not realize how essential their child’s oral health is to their ability to obtain proper nutrition, as they must have healthy teeth and strong supporting structures (gums and underlying bone) to create adequate force for chewing food.
Kids may think digestion begins in the stomach, but that is incorrect. Chewing is the essential first step in the digestive process. Officially termed mastication, the action of chewing provides both a mechanical and chemical breakdown of food particles.
Chewing also increases saliva production to lubricate the mouth and aid in swallowing. Saliva contains important enzymes that begin the chemical breakdown of molecules in food.
Without a full complement of teeth and a solid foundation surrounding them, your child’s ability to chew properly and thoroughly decreases. Children who have loose, unstable teeth generate less chewing force or those who are missing multiple teeth cannot adequately grind their food and end up swallowing larger particles of food. In cases like this, the body will not get all of the nutrients it needs out of your food.
Kids with unhealthy teeth and gums also avoid certain types of food, like crunchy raw fruits and vegetables or meats, which can be difficult to chew. The lack of strong teeth and gums usually leads to a diet of foods lacking nutritional value.
What are the Best Foods and Drinks for My Child’s Teeth?
In order to promote good oral health, your family must choose foods and drinks that are unlikely to cause damage to the teeth through decay, acid erosion, and fractures. The most common culprit of cavity-causing decay in the mouth is caused by a pH imbalance.
Many of the foods and beverages children consume like citrus fruits, and starchy breads are highly acidic and will decrease the natural pH in their mouths, which increases the acidity of their saliva. In combination with a healthful diet, it’s important to neutralize the acidity in the mouth by encouraging your child to drink plenty of water and brush their teeth regularly.
The only beverage that is perfectly safe and beneficial for our teeth is plain (non-sparkling) water. Staying well hydrated supports good function of your child’s salivary glands. Our bodies cannot make adequate saliva when dehydrated.
A Balanced, Nutrient-Rich Diet
In order to obtain proper nutrients for overall health, your family must eat a variety of foods from each of the five major food groups. When eaten in moderation, these foods can be good for your child’s oral health as well.
1. Whole Grains – When it comes to whole grains, use this simple rule for healthy choices; the longer it takes to cook, the more complex the carbohydrates are, and the better it is for your child’s teeth. That means when considering foods like rice or oatmeal your family should avoid choosing quick or instant options over less processed options.
2. Fruits – Fruits are an important source of vitamins and minerals. Unfortunately, most are also quite acidic, which can damage teeth through cavities and acid erosion. Encourage your child to enjoy fruit with a meal to minimize damage and keep their diet balanced. Eliminate or minimize direct consumption of highly acidic fruits like grapefruit, limes and lemons.
3. Vegetables – Most vegetables are complex carbohydrates, and when consumed raw, they can even have a plaque-removing effect on our teeth. Raw vegetables like celery, carrots, and spinach are all wonderful choices for kids!
4. Lean Sources of Protein – Foods such as lean beef, skinless poultry and fish; dry beans, peas and other legumes help support the health of your child’s immune system and the mouth in general. They carry little to no risk for causing cavities!
5. Dairy Products – Dairy food like milk, cheese, and yogurt are a wonderful source of Calcium and other vitamins necessary for great oral health. They contain a minor amount of natural sugars that can cause cavities, which is why we advise new parents to not give a child milk in a sippy cup overnight.
What Nutrients Should I Look for to Help My Child Build Strong, Healthy Teeth?
Many of the nutrients essential to great oral health are the same as those essential to our overall health. And because it’s easy to see inside the mouth, manifestations of nutritional deficiencies may be easier to recognize when it comes to oral health.
Calcium is the foundation for strong bones and healthy teeth. When children lack this vital mineral, their teeth can become brittle and porous. Make sure your kids are getting enough calcium by eating a variety of dairy products and green leafy vegetables. Your family can also try many breakfast cereals fortified with calcium.
Zinc boosts our immune system to fight common colds. Young people who do not get enough zinc may suffer from sores at the corners of the mouth (called angular cheilitis) or frequent canker sores. You can add Zinc to your child’s diet through salmon, chicken, dark chocolate, pumpkin and watermelon.
Vitamin D is essential to build and maintain healthy bones, and must be adequately present for Calcium to be absorbed properly in our bodies. A vitamin D deficiency can put your family at a higher risk for aggressive gum disease. One great way for kids to get more vitamin D is by getting plenty of sunshine!
Protein is a nutrient essential for muscle growth. Proteins are important for resisting bacterial infections, promoting healing, and regulating the pH inside the mouth. A protein deficiency can lead to delayed healing in the mouth and fungal infections called candidiasis.
Scurvy is caused by a vitamin C deficiency, and can lead to bleeding gums and gum disease. While scurvy is relatively uncommon today, it still can affect people who do not consume enough vitamin C.
Vitamin B Complex
Specifically, vitamins B6, B9, and B12 are essential for good oral health. Present in meat, liver, fish, or milk products, vegetarians can often suffer from a vitamin B deficiency. This deficiency can cause an enlarged red tongue, a change in taste, and sporadic bleeding of the gums.
What are the Worst Foods and Drinks for My Child’s Teeth?
In contrast, many foods carry a high risk for damaging our teeth. These “bad” foods can increase your child’s likelihood for cavities, contribute to acid erosion, or aid in the development of cracks or tooth fractures.
1. High Sugar Content – Foods and drinks with a high sugar content are bad for the teeth. The simple carbohydrates in sodas, juices, cookies, candy, etc… are sources of fuel for the bacteria that cause cavities. When our families eat and drink items with a high sugar content, we are feeding the bacteria that destroy teeth.
2. Low pH (Highly Acidic) – Tooth enamel is the hardest substance in the human body. Its biggest enemy is acid. We can literally dissolve enamel by exposing the teeth to strong acids. Acid is also the mechanism through which bacteria cause cavities. The bacteria eat sugar and produce acid as their waste product. That acid is what allows the bacteria to penetrate enamel and cause cavities. Many drinks are highly acidic, like sodas, fruit juices, sports drinks, and even some bottled water. Despite low levels of sugar, diet sodas and sparkling water are also dangerous to teeth due to their low pH.
3. Hard Textures – When we chew things that are extremely hard, kids can risk cracking and breaking their teeth. This means that very hard nuts, crusty breads, and chewing ice can all be risky.
4. Dehydration – As we mentioned earlier, saliva is a very important defense in the health of your child’s mouth. When dehydrated, the mouth has a higher risk for cavities, gum disease, and mouth sores. Consuming foods with a high salt content can contribute to dehydration.
How Can My Family Enjoy These “Bad Foods” and Maintain Good Oral Health?
We don’t want to spoil all the fun! Your child can enjoy some of these “bad foods” periodically and still maintain good oral health. Here are some tips to keep their mouth in great shape while still allowing them to enjoy their favorite snacks or drinks.
1. Drink plenty of water. Water is essential to great oral health and overall health. Encourage your child to stay hydrated to maintain a neutral pH inside the mouth by drinking water throughout the day. Your child can enjoy “bad” drinks, like fruit juices or chocolate milk, with a meal to minimize the risk to their teeth.
2. Chew Xylitol sugar-free gum after a snack. After indulging, your child can quickly fight some damaging effects of their “bad food” by stimulating a release of saliva. Chewing sugar-free gum is the fastest and simplest way to do this. This is actually a little more effective than drinking water because saliva is slightly alkaline and can counteract the acids more effectively.
3. Wait for mealtime. Rather than having treats between meals as a snack, try trading high sugar or acidic foods as part of your meals, and let your child consume “good” foods when they just want a bite. During meals, the body produces the highest levels of saliva, so their mouths can help fight off the damage from bad bacteria.
4. Brush and floss regularly. Maintaining great oral hygiene at home is an essential part of keeping our teeth healthy. Even with a perfect diet, our teeth continue to collect plaque every day. Children must remove plaque consistently and effectively to avoid cavities and gum disease.
5. Visit your dentist regularly. Though we can’t prevent every dental problem, your child’s dentist can spot various warning signs that may indicate their risk for cavities or gum disease. When this happens, we can advise parents and children on the preventative steps needed, and be proactive before it’s too late.
Healthy Foods for Healthy Teeth: Next Steps
We love helping families make healthy choices and maintain great oral health. If your child is cavity-prone or has active gum disease, try some of these diet tips to improve their oral health for life.