All parents worry about their kids. We worry about their health, their education, their friends, their choice in music, the food they eat, and the food they don’t. The list is endless. One thing we shouldn’t have to worry about is how snacking is affecting their oral health. Whether your child has a sweet tooth or prefers salty snacks, there are simple rules to govern snack time. Following these guidelines will give you confidence when it comes to dishing out mid-afternoon munchies.
Food and Tooth Decay
You have probably heard that too many sweets will lead to cavities, but you may not know why. The problem with sweet treats is that the sugar sticks around in your child’s mouth for 20-30 minutes after they finish eating. The natural bacteria in the mouth feeds on the sugar. The by-product of this feast is acid that lowers the pH in their mouth and contributes to tooth enamel breakdown. This softening of the enamel leads to the formation of cavities.
This destructive process is not specific to candy and ice cream, though. The bacteria in your child’s mouth is not picky. It will feed on any available carbohydrate. Thus, anytime you eat carbohydrates, you are feeding the bacteria and lowering the pH in your mouth. This acidic environment is fertile ground for tooth decay.
Ideally, we could limit tooth decay by limiting oral exposure to carbohydrates. However, if you have kids, you know that is harder than it sounds. Children, especially young children, require frequent meals and snacks throughout the day. So, the key becomes choosing the timing and the substance of the snacks wisely.
The Good and the Bad
At first glance, it may be difficult to discern the bad from the good. Organic fruit leather, chewy granola bars, and popcorn all fall among the deceptively poor choices. While these snacks may not be bad nutritionally, they are not the best choice for your child’s teeth. Fruit leather and other fruit snacks are very sticky. They can lodge in the grooves of little teeth where they remain even after snack time is long over.
Similarly, chewy granola bars contain sticky syrups that can coat teeth. Popcorn and popcorn kernels can become lodged between teeth or under the gums for long periods of time. While all of these snacks can be part of a healthy diet, it is best to avoid sticky, sweet, or acidic treats that stay in the mouth for a long time.
There are a few critical properties to look for in searching for better snack alternatives for your children.
- Fiber Content – Foods such as fresh fruits and vegetables are high in fiber. Apples, carrots, or pears require more chewing, which causes the body to produce more saliva. Saliva is a great way to rinse away bacteria and excess sugar from the mouth.
- Low Sugar – Snacks that contain less sugar do not feed the bacteria in the mouth and thus don’t cause a dramatic change in the mouth’s pH level. Instead of giving your child soda, consider putting raw fruit in sparkling water as part of a fun, tasty experiment.
- Natural Antibacterial Properties – Some foods have unique properties that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Plain yogurt contains a blend of beneficial bacteria that can help keep things in balance.
- Mineral Content – Teeth require minerals such as calcium or phosphorus to remineralize the outer enamel after exposure to acidic or sugary foods. Snacks high in these minerals help to keep teeth strong. Cheese, yogurt, milk, and nuts are all excellent choices to provide these helpful minerals.
Adding Sweet Treats
Of course, kids will be kids. It is nearly impossible to get them to eat apple slices and carrot sticks when there are lollipops and cookies all around them. So, how do you protect their teeth from the effects of these foods?
- Chew Sugar-Free Gum – Chewing gum after a sugary snack increases saliva production in the mouth. The saliva rinses away the sugar and helps the pH of the mouth return to neutral.
- Drink Some Milk – Drinking a glass of milk after eating a cookie has a couple of benefits. Milk contains calcium, which helps strengthen tooth enamel. Milk also helps to neutralize the acidic pH created by the sugar in the cookie. It’s a win-win.
- Avoid Sweets at Bedtime – Saliva levels in the mouth are lower at the end of the day, making bedtime a poor choice for this type of snack. Instead, offer the treat at the end of dinner when your child is already eating.
- Don’t Brush Immediately – Having your child brush their teeth right after eating a piece of cake may rub the sugars around in their mouth. It is better to wait at least 30 minutes after eating to have them brush with fluoride toothpaste. Waiting gives their mouth a chance to rinse out the excess sugar. Then, the fluoride can work to strengthen the teeth again.
- Visit the Dentist – Most kids don’t list going to the dentist as one of their favorite activities, but it is essential to maintaining healthy teeth and identifying problems early. To help make dentist visits more pleasant, look for a kids dentist who knows how to engage children and make them feel comfortable in the chair. Our kids dentists in Weber County are great with young patients and happy to help yours overcome potential fear of dental procedures.
Teaching your children good oral hygiene is as important as teaching them healthy eating habits. In this case, the two lessons are interconnected. Many good, healthy snacking choices will lead to good, strong teeth as well. Learning to choose healthy snacks now will directly affect their oral health for years to come.