April is National Oral Health Month in Canada! Taking care of your teeth and gums (and your child’s teeth and gums!) on a daily basis not only help to create a bright smile, but it also may help to reduce the risk for many health issues including heart problems, respiratory issues, oral cancer, and even some forms of dementia. Of course, brushing and flossing will also help to prevent cavities and tooth decay.
Did you know that cavities are the most common chronic disease of childhood in Canada and worldwide? I was surprised to learn this myself, especially that tooth decay is considered a chronic disease! Untreated cavities can disrupt your child’s sleep, ability to speak, eat, and learn at school. Ongoing oral health problems in childhood can be detrimental to a child’s overall development and quality of life. The good news is, tooth decay and cavities are largely preventable! There are many things that can be done to help prevent cavities in our children ranging from the food they eat, to their daily oral care routine.
To start, here are my top three nutrition tips to promote good oral health in kids:
- When you serve foods that contain added sugars, include them with a meal or snack
The type of sugar that is linked to the most cavities in both children and adults is called “sucrose”. This is the type of quickly digestible sugar that table sugar is made of, and is commonly added into sweets like candies, store-bought baked goods, and sweetened beverages. When foods high in added sugar are eaten by themselves, the sugar molecules have longer more intimate exposure to the surface of the tooth, making tooth decay and cavities more likely.
So, should we stop offering sweet foods to our kids altogether? Nope! In fact, I often recommend serving sweets and treats with meals or snacks, to help put all foods on a neutral playing field. This helps to take the morality out of food, so that kids don’t have to feel “bad” for eating (or wanting) sweets. Depriving kids from sweet foods can actually put these foods on a pedestal, making kids crave them much more. The great thing about servings treats WITH a meal is that it helps to create a food neutral home, and takes treats and desserts off of a pedestal (decreasing their allure and appeal). We want kids to be calm around these foods, and this strategy really helps with that.
It also helps to reduce the total time that simple sugars are exposed to the teeth. For example, let’s say you decide to offer a candy with your kiddos snack. When your child takes a bite out of their apple or a piece of cheese after enjoying the piece of candy, they are effectively cleaning the candy residue off the surface of their teeth with each bite! It’s a win-win for both your kid’s relationship with food, and oral health!
- Offer water in between meals
Staying hydrated is important for everyone, including kids! But it’s also important for protecting their teeth! Not only does drinking enough water promote better concentration, cognitive performance, and energy levels, it also allows for proper saliva production and prevents dry mouth. Salivia helps prevent tooth decay by washing away food particles from the teeth, neutralizing acids that erode tooth enamel, and also helps fight plaque-forming bacteria.
In most communities, the tap water also contains added fluoride, where trace levels of this naturally occurring mineral are maintained at regulated amounts to help slow down or stop cavities from forming. Fluoride also helps to rebuild enamel (the outer tooth layer) and strengthen teeth to help prevent tooth decay. Read this water fluoridation fact sheet from Health Canada for more information!
Offering water as the main beverage of choice between eating helps to rinse your child’s teeth, promote saliva production, with the benefit of being free from cavity-causing components. Acidic ingredients and simple sugars that are found in fruit juice, sport drinks or carbonated beverages increase the risk of tooth decay and cavity formation. While I do not recommend that these drinks should be completely cut out, it best to offer your kids water the most often, with juice and other drinks offered on an occasional basis.
- Serve foods rich in nutrients needed to form healthy teeth
- Vitamin C– Important for skin healing process, collagen formation and making new tissues. People who don’t get enough vitamin C in their diet may experience swollen painful gums, increasing risk of gum infections and tooth decay.
- Food Sources of Vitamin C: red bell peppers, strawberries, citrus fruits (oranges, grapefruit etc.), kiwi, broccoli, brussels sprouts.
- Vitamin D- Important for allowing your body to absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus to help build strong bones and teeth. Low vitamin D levels have been linked to weakened teeth, dental cavities, and periodontal disease (a serious gum infection leading to receding gums and loose, sensitive teeth)
- Food Sources of Vitamin D: Vitamin D fortified milk/milk alternatives, eggs, mushrooms, salmon, rainbow trout. It is also important give your child with a daily vitamin D supplement as we don’t typically get enough from the sun or food.
- Calcium- Important forming strong tooth enamel, the outer tooth layer that helps protect against bacterial invasion and tooth decay. Calcium is essential for development of strong teeth and bones in children.
- Food Sources of Calcium: Milk, yogurt, cheese, cottage cheese, kefir, calcium fortified milk alternatives, tofu, leafy greens, sesame seeds, almonds, tahini.
- Probiotic and prebiotic containing foods- Having a healthy microbiome (the microorganisms that live in your body) helps to lower the number of cavity-causing bacteria in your body. Foods that contain beneficial bacterial (known as probiotics) and fibres that feed the beneficial bacteria (known as prebiotics) promote growth of these bacteria, helping to reduce harmful bacteria in the body (including the mouth!)
- Food Sources of Probiotics: yogurt, kefir, cheese, fermented foods. Make sure to check the label for the word “probiotic” as not all of these foods contain enough live healthy bacteria per serving to be considered “probiotics foods”.
- Food Sources of Prebiotics: Bananas, onion, asparagus, garlic, tomatoes, whole grains (oats, rye, barley), apples.
Although nutrition plays a role in protecting and strengthening teeth, there are many other factors that may influence your little one’s oral health. For example, if cavities run in the family, there could be a genetic component that increases risk. Teeth shape and how they are positioned in the mouth can make plaque build-up more or less likely. Even the types of bacteria present in the mouth have an impact on plaque formation!
Teaching your child about daily oral hygiene is key in keeping their mouth healthy and teeth strong. Brush your child’s teeth (or have them brush their own teeth if they are old enough) for 2 minutes, twice a day with fluoride-contaning toothpaste. Teach your child to spit out excess toothpaste instead of swallowing it! Start to include flossing at night time routine when your child’s teeth grow closer together and are touching.
Regardless of which of these tips you decide to implement, it’s important to know that strong dental hygiene and scheduling yearly dentist visits for your child cannot be replaced!