Sipping, snacking, tooth decay

  • Published
  • By Medical contributor
  • American Dental Association
Many parents across the country issue a common refrain at dinner, "Eat that -- it's good for you." There's another old favorite in the parental arsenal of dietary warnings, "Don't eat that -- it'll rot your teeth."

Now more than ever, children are faced with a bewildering array of food choices -- from fresh produce to sugar-laden processed convenience meals and snack foods. What children eat and when they eat it may affect their general health and oral health as well.

February is National Children's Dental Health Month. The 55th Dental Squadron reminds parents that they need to take an active role in helping their children remain cavity-free. During the month, squadron members will visit the child development centers, youth center and the Offutt Pre-School. During these visits, they will teach children proper brushing and flossing techniques, how to break thumb sucking habits, the benefits of sealants, when to wear a mouth guard and how to say no to tobacco.

Today, Americans are consuming foods and drinks that are high in sugar and starches more often and in larger portions than ever before. It's clear that "junk" foods and drinks have gradually replaced nutritious beverages and foods for many people. The average teenage boy in the United States consumes 81 gallons of soft drinks each year.

A steady diet of sugary foods and drinks can ruin teeth, especially among those who snack throughout the day. Common activities may contribute to the tendency toward tooth decay. These include "grazing" habitually on foods with minimal nutritional value and frequently sipping on sugary drinks.

When sugar is consumed consistently in large, often hidden amounts, the harmful effect on teeth can be dramatic. Sugar on teeth provides food for bacteria, which produces acid. The acid in turn can eat away tooth enamel.

Almost all foods have some type of sugar that can't and shouldn't be eliminated from our diets. Many of these foods also contain important nutrients. But the risk of tooth decay increases with a diet high in sugars and starches. Starches can be found in everything from bread and pretzels to salad dressing, so read labels and plan carefully for a balanced, nutritious diet for you and your children.

Here are some helpful tips to reduce your children's risk of tooth decay.

- Only consume sugary foods and drinks with meals. Saliva production increases during meals and helps neutralize acid production. This also rinses food particles from the mouth.

- Limit between-meal snacks. If children crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods.

- If your children chew gum, ensure its sugarless - chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay-producing acid.

- Monitor beverage consumption - instead of soft drinks all day, children should drink water and low-fat milk.

- Help your children develop good brushing and flossing habits.

- Schedule regular dental visits.

Talk to your dentist for more information. If your child hasn't had a dental examination, schedule a "well baby checkup" for his or her teeth. It's beneficial for the first dental visit to occur within six months of the appearance of the first tooth and no later than a child's first birthday.

Attitudes and habits established at an early age are critical in maintaining good oral health throughout life. By participating in the annual celebration of National Children's Dental Health Month, members of the dental team, parents, teachers and others can help keep children's smiles beautiful, now and for years to come. (The 55th Medical Group contributed to this report.)