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An article from the National Institutes of health details how children with limited access to fresh, nutrient-dense foods can increase both early childhood dental problems as well as furthering childhood obesity, warning:

Frequent consumption of simple carbohydrates, primarily in the form of dietary sugars is significantly associated with increased dental caries (cavities) risk.

While most parents consistently look out for their child’s health, working to ensure a well-balanced diet, plenty of exercise, and plenty of sleep, parents may forget to take their child’s dental health as seriously. There are certain snacks and drinks that can seem harmless enough but can damage your child’s smile by damaging his or her dental health. Other foods and snacks can actually promote dental health.

Foods and Snacks That Promote Dental Health in Children

Happily, there are plenty of healthy foods and snacks that children can eat that will keep their teeth just as healthy as their bodies. Perhaps one of the very best snacks—you know it as the one that keeps the doctor away—are apples! An apple a day is not only healthy for the body, but it can also help keep cavities at bay. Chewing apples and other crunchy, high-fiber fruits and vegetables can scrub away plaque from your child’s teeth. The antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin C and other nutrients can help protect your child’s gums and other tissues from cell damage and bacterial infection.  As a bonus, most children love apples. Keep peeled, sliced apples in tightly sealed Ziploc bags or other containers for quick snacks for your child.

Milk, cheese, and yogurt are all rich in calcium, casein, and phosphorous—all of which help protect your child’s tooth enamel. In fact, the nutrients found in milk products have even been shown to neutralize at least some plaque bacterial acids. The probiotics found in yogurt can benefit gum health as the beneficial bacteria can crowd out cavity-causing bacteria. Just remember, much of the yogurts sold—even those specifically marketed to children—are full of added sugars. Opt for plain yogurt with no added sugar for the best dental health. Most kids love string cheese—and it’s a very healthy snack!

Eggs are a great source of calcium, protein, and vitamin D—all important minerals for oral health. Vitamin D helps your child’s body absorb calcium and calcium builds and maintains healthy, strong teeth. The protein in eggs helps teeth, gums, and the jawbone to be strong; while there are other foods high in protein, your child can get a healthy dose of protein from an egg without the fat and calories found in meat.

Like apples, celery and carrots are crunchy, which scrubs away dental plaque, they also contain a lot of water and fiber to help balance the sugar your child eats. The chewing action required for celery and carrots massages your child’s gums, plus carrots are full of plaque-fighting keratin as well as Vitamin A—crucial for strengthening delicate tooth enamel.  Fun fact: Celery’s fibrous strands can even double as floss—nature’s floss!

Green leafy vegetables and broccoli have high levels of vitamins and minerals, providing huge benefits for your child’s oral health. Spinach, kale, and other leafy greens contain folic acid—well-known to promote tooth and gum health.  Broccoli is full of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients for your teeth and gums, including:

  • Vitamin C for increasing tissue strength and decreasing the risk of periodontal disease;
  • Sulforaphane for reducing the risk for certain types of oral cancers;
  • Kaempferol, a flavonoid that protects from periodontal disease, and
  • Beta carotene helps improve vitamin A synthesis, improving dental health.

Raw broccoli can break apart plaque buildup and stimulate the production of saliva in the mouth. To encourage children to eat raw broccoli, offer a variety of healthy dips (like hummus).

Nuts and seeds are more dental-friendly snacks. Nuts such as almonds, peanuts, and cashews, as well as seeds—like sunflower seeds—can protect your child’s teeth by replenishing the minerals depleted by acids from other foods. Nuts are low in sugar, high in “good fats,” and are less likely to get stuck in the deep grooves of the teeth.

Foods and Snacks to Avoid for Your Child’s Dental Health

Just as there are foods and snacks that are good for your child’s dental health, there also those that should be avoided, at least most of the time. While a sugary snack is okay once in a while, sugar should never be a regular part of your child’s diet—both for physical health reasons and dental health reasons. In particular, chewy candy full of sugar is one of the worst choices for children’s snacks. Sugary, chewy candies like Skittles, Starburst, Gummy Bears, Twizzlers, and Sour Patch Kids—while almost universally loved by children—are among the worst snacks for dental health. Make sure these sugary candies are occasional special treats, rather than a diet staple.

Citrus fruits, while high in nutrition, should be limited simply because they are highly acidic fruits. Oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes can erode tooth enamel unless your child brushes his or her teeth almost immediately after eating citrus fruit or drinking citrus fruit juice. Of course, everything in moderation. While your child can certainly eat an orange or drink a glass of orange juice, just don’t let them go overboard.

Bread, chips, and pasta are all foods high in starches, so should be consumed in moderation. Like citrus foods, if starchy foods are not brushed away quickly, they can be converted into sugars while stuck in between teeth—and sugar is a known enemy of teeth! Dried fruits have been touted as “healthy” snacks, but they are not nearly as healthy as the marketers would have you believe—not to bodies or teeth! Unfortunately, many companies add sugar to dried fruits. When you add the natural sugars and the added sugars to a snack that is sticky and chewy and will get stuck in between your child’s teeth, dried fruits, like some other “healthy” snacks, should be reserved for an occasional snack, rather than a daily snack.

Cola drinks should be avoided virtually all of the time. These drinks are full of sugar, and the dark cola drinks can stain your child’s teeth and erode the tooth enamel. Having a cola every now and then—if your child brushes immediately afterward—probably won’t cause significant damage, but honestly, it’s better for your child’s dental health and overall health to never get in the habit of drinking colas.

As an aside, if your child is going to eat or drink something that is not particularly good for their dental health, it’s better if they do it in one sitting, rather than eating or drinking smaller amounts throughout the day. The increased exposure and duration of sugar throughout the day results in a much higher risk of cavities. If your child is going to eat a food that is not ideal for oral health, have them drink plenty of water along with it to help wash away the sugar.

Foods and Snacks That May Seem Healthy But Can Damage Your Child’s Dental Health

Sports drinks like Gatorade and Powerade may seem like healthy drinks for your child, but in reality, while loaded with energy-giving carbohydrates, they also contain significant amounts of sugar that can lead to tooth decay and enamel erosion. If your child drinks the occasional sports drink after a sports event, it probably won’t do much damage, so long as he or she also drinks water afterward to wash away the sugar. On a regular basis, however, sports drinks probably should not be a part of your child’s chosen drinks.

Most all of us have given our child Goldfish crackers—it’s practically an iconic children’s snack. If you do allow your child to eat Goldfish, make sure they wash it down with water to wash away the pieces stuck in their teeth.

Crackers in general seem pretty harmless, but they are made from white flour, which, when left in the mouth and in between teeth will break down into sugars. These sugars are then consumed by bacteria, which produce acid. The acid weakens tooth enamel, causing serious dental issues for children.

While not a food or snack, it’s important that you never let your child get into the habit of crunching on ice. While ice is just water—and water is good for us—teeth and the tooth enamel can be significantly damaged by ice-crunching.

Ensuring Your Child’s Dental and Physical Health

Your child needs food from all the major food groups to stay healthy and grow properly. When a child consumes too many carbohydrates and sugars, as well as savory foods and starches, tooth decay can result. When carbohydrates and sugars remain on the teeth for any length of time, tooth decay is the result. Consider the following to keep your child’s teeth healthy and strong:

  • Make sure you always have healthy fruits and vegetables in the house to offer in lieu of sugary snacks. Most children like pears, melons, berries, and apples. While bananas are healthy for the body, they do contain concentrated sugars, so should be eaten in moderation. Celery, cucumbers, and melons are also high in water, giving your child an extra hydration boost.
  • Aged cheeses, such as cheddar, Swiss, and Monterey Jack help trigger saliva flow, which, in turn, helps wash away food particles from the teeth. Offer cheese with meals, or as a snack.
  • Avoid sticky or chewy foods, like raisins, dried figs, other dried fruits, jellybeans, caramel, molasses, and syrup, all of which stick to the teeth. If your child does eat any of these foods, have them brush immediately afterward.
  • If you plan on serving a sugary treat, serve it directly after a meal, rather than as a snack—the increased amount of saliva in the mouth at mealtime helps wash away the sugars from the treat.
  • Never put babies to bed with a bottle filled with soda, juice, formula, or milk. If your baby requires a bottle at bedtime, fill it with plain water.
  • Get your child in the habit of drinking water, rather than juice or soda. Water is good for the body and good for dental health.

Other Dental Health Tips for Your Child

Good dental health begins before your child’s first baby tooth even appears. Just because you can’t see their teeth, doesn’t mean they aren’t there. At birth, your baby has 20 primary teeth. Some of those primary teeth are fully developed in your child’s jaw. Even before your child’s teeth come in, you can run a clean, damp washcloth around the gums to clear away any bacteria left from formula, other drinks, and food.

Once your child’s teeth come in, start brushing with a soft, infant toothbrush and the tiniest dab of fluoride toothpaste.  Most children can learn to spit after brushing around age 2, but until children are over the age of 8, it’s a good idea to supervise brushing so toothpaste is not swallowed, and the job is done thoroughly.

Switch your child from a bottle to a sippy cup as quickly as possible—most children can drink from a sippy cup after about six months, with parental assistance. This prevents liquids from pooling around your child’s teeth. Children over the age of one can generally handle a sippy cup on their own.

The ADA recommends that all children see a dentist by their first birthday. Your child can remain in your lap while the dentist performs a “modified” exam. The goal is to get your child used to seeing a dentist, minimizing fears as they get older. If possible, take your child to a dentist that specializes in treating kids. If your child is at particular risk of cavities, your dentist may recommend applying topical fluoride to harden the tooth enamel and ward off cavities.

If you follow the above guidelines from the time your child is a baby, you—and your child—will be rewarded with good oral health that can last a lifetime.

This post is also available in: Español (Spanish)

Dr. Katie Peterson

“Dr. Katie” is a graduate of DePauw University and the Indiana University School of Dentistry. She is a member of the American Dental Association, Indiana Dental Association, and an affiliate of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. With more than a decade of experience, Dr. Katie became enchanted with pediatric patient population early in her career, and has focused on the care and treatment of young patients ever since. She has worked at the westside office since 2005, as an associate then lead dentist, before acquiring both the two practices. This has allowed her to sharpen her leadership skills and create a staff that shares her vision of “patient first.”