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Diet and Tooth Decay in Children

“The role of sugars and other carbohydrates is critical. Nearly all carbohydrates have caries-promoting properties” – U.S. Surgeon General’s Report

  1. What is the cause of tooth decay?
  2. What is dental plaque?
  3. What is the main dietary cause of tooth decay?
  4. Why are sugars so harmful to dental health?
  5. Are all sugars harmful to dental health?
  6. Which foods are bad for teeth?
  7. What is “baby bottle tooth decay”?
  8. How can I encourage my child to eat a healthy diet?
  9. How do certain foods actively discourage dental disease?

1. What is the cause of tooth decay?

  • Tooth decay is caused by dental plaque on teeth.

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2. What is dental plaque?

  • Dental plaque is a thin film of bacteria and food particles that sticks to teeth and cannot be rinsed off.
    • It can only be removed by tooth brushing and flossing, and by professional cleaning by a dentist or dental hygienist.
    • The longer plaque is allowed to stick to the teeth, the greater are the chances that it will cause tooth decay and inflammation of the gums.
  • Dental plaque can be seen by using disclosing tablets.
    • They can indicate how well the child is brushing.
    • Plaque left on the teeth is stained a bright pink colour after chewing a tablet and rinsing out the residue.
    • Further brushing of the stained areas is needed, until the pink stain is removed. This will confirm that all the plaque has been brushed away.
    • Disclosing tablets or solutions should be an integral part of tooth cleaning.
Click to enlarge
Plaque stained by
disclosing tablet

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3. What is the main dietary cause of tooth decay?

  • The main dietary cause of tooth decay is eating too much sugar.
  • Tooth decay can be reduced by controlling the consumption of sugar, and the formation of plaque. These are the two main causes of decay.

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4. Why are sugars so harmful to dental health?

  • Added sugars in refined foods such as cakes, biscuits, sweets, and soft drinks, assist plaque to develop and accumulate on teeth.
  • This is the main cause of tooth decay.

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5. Are all sugars harmful to dental health?

  • Sugars that occur naturally in milk and fruit are not regarded as a significant problem.
  • The added sugars in foods are a major threat to the health of teeth and gums. They are also a risk to general health.

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6. Which foods are bad for the teeth?

  • Foods and drinks that have a high sugar content, and those that are acidic, are bad for teeth.
  • Reducing the amount of sugar in the diet is very important for the reduction of tooth decay in children.
  • The major dietary causes of plaque formation and tooth decay are:
    • Soft fizzy drinks including diet drinks. It is the sugar and/or acid content of soft fizzy drinks that cause the damage.
    • Table sugar
    • Added sugars in food
    • Sweets
    • Carbohydrate-rich pastries
    • Chocolate snacks

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7. What is “baby bottle tooth decay”?

  • Baby bottle tooth decay is also known as nursing bottle syndrome.
    Babies that are put to bed and left with a bottle of juice or milk can develop what dentists are now calling “baby bottle tooth decay” or “nursing bottle syndrome”.
    The decay can be very severe.
  • When baby teeth have prolonged exposure to milk and fruit juices, the following sequence of events takes place:
    • The bacteria in plaque are able to convert dietary sugars into acid.
    • Plaque is normally present in all mouths.
    • It sticks to teeth and produces acid that dissolves tooth structure. This is how the decay process starts and progresses.
    • Baby teeth can become decayed from their lengthy exposure to the sugar and acid contents of the bottle.
    • Plain water is the safest drink for the baby between feeding.
Click to enlarge
Baby bottle
tooth decay

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8. How can I encourage my child to eat a healthy diet?

  • Healthy eating patterns should be established when children are very young and parents are more or less in control of their diet.
    • The volume of sugar consumed is important, but it is the frequency of sugar intake that does the most damage.
    • If possible, discourage children from eating too many sweets or biscuits.
    • This can be difficult as children are often attracted to sweet flavours.
    • Wherever possible, offer your child a piece of fruit instead of sweets or chocolates, or a fruit juice instead of a drink containing added sugar.
    • Eating cheese after a meal can reduce the effect of acid in the mouth.
    • Constant snacking should be discouraged, and the foods with high sugar levels are best confined to meal times.
    • Babies should not be put to bed and left with a bottle of juice or even milk, as this can cause decay.
    • Foods and drinks containing artificial sweeteners such as xylitol and aspartame are available, and these are not decay-inducing.
    • As far as is known these sweeteners have no dangerous side effects.
    • A taste for unhealthy foods is encouraged by attractive packaging and by advertisers.
    • Well-meaning friends and family members can also give children unhealthy treats.
    • It is important to read the contents of prepared foods bought for children.
      Foods containing high levels of sugar are best left on the supermarket shelves!

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9. How do certain foods actively discourage dental disease?

  • Foods that require vigorous chewing such as raw fruit and vegetables, stimulate the flow of saliva.
  • Saliva can dilute the acids formed by the interaction of bacteria and sugar.
  • Since these acids cause tooth decay, diluting them helps to prevent decay.
  • Sugarless chewing gum stimulates the production of saliva, and also helps to remove plaque by its physical contact with the tooth surface.
    Sugarless chewing gum is recommended, but chewing gum that contains sugar simply adds to the problem of excessive sugar in the diet.

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