February is National Children’s Dental Health Month and a perfect time to assess how to improve the oral habits and overall health for the kids we look after. Oral health, for better or worse, significantly influences our total wellness. Our diet plays a similarly important role in our mouths and requires making smart decisions – especially for our children. The grocery store is full of easy snacks for kids that are popularly believed to be healthy, but many are far from it.
“Tooth decay is the most common infectious disease among children and adolescents today,” said WDA Vice President Dr. Cliff Hartmann, a retired pediatric dentist in New Berlin. “Most parents and caregivers know that candy can be a problem when it comes to oral health, but many don’t realize that sugar and other cavity causers are hiding in seemingly ‘healthy’ foods. With a little knowledge about good snacking, consistent brushing and flossing and other truly healthy habits, tooth decay is preventable.”
The WDA recommends limiting these cavity-causing snacks in children’s diets:
Fruit juice. Many assume that because it’s made from fruit, it must be good for you. Unfortunately, many juice options are loaded with alarming amounts of added sugar, and contain little nutritional value compared to whole fruit due to the absence of nutrients like fiber. The sugar and high acidity typically found in fruit juice is a destructive combination for teeth, eating away at tooth enamel and weakening defense against plaque and cavities. The American Academy of Pediatrics deems fruit juice completely unnecessary for children under 1 year, and recommends small amounts in moderation for those older.
Chips and crackers. These snacks are popular for many reasons – they can be bought in serving-sized bags, are easy to eat on-the-go and sometimes come in cute, kid-friendly shapes. But don’t let looks and convenience fool you. Foods such as these, including pasta and bread, are high in starch – a cavity-inducing substance that easily sticks between teeth. When left to linger in the mouth, starchy foods will break down into sugars, feeding harmful bacteria and producing tooth-decaying acid. These are snacks that require brushing afterward, so if consumed, it’s best to eat them all at once, rather than periodically throughout the day. To even further reduce the risk of tooth decay, choose whole wheat options rather than those made with white flour.
Flavored yogurt. Some yogurt options help strengthen teeth, but many do not. Although all yogurt contains some natural sugars, it is important to avoid those with added or artificial sweeteners, such as fruit flavored yogurts and those with candy toppings. Plain Greek yogurt is one of the healthiest alternatives to the sweeter options – it’s higher in protein and is still packed with calcium, a mineral that strengthens enamel, and probiotics that help fight gum disease and bad breath. Some tooth-friendly, sweet toppings that you can add to this snack include fresh fruit or raw honey.
PB & J. It’s a childhood classic and favorite for many, but its two main ingredients are also commonly packed with – you guessed it – sugar. This, in addition to sticky textures, creates a perfect storm for cavities, especially for kids with poor oral hygiene habits already. Consider replacing jelly with fresh fruit, and the alternatives for peanut butter are numerous. If your kids enjoy this treat, look for ingredients with no added sugar, and be sure to couple it with plenty of water to help wash away any sticky food particles left behind in the mouth.
Granola bars. These snacks are also frequently guilty of adding unnecessary sugars to an otherwise healthy, energizing treat. It’s common to see granola bar options drizzled in yogurt or chocolate, or reliant on high fructose corn syrup for flavor – which is more likely to give a sugar-high than a sustainable boost of energy. Whether they’re chewy or crunchy, added sugars in granola bars can be damaging to teeth and cause cavities. When shopping for healthier options, look for granola bars with few and recognizable ingredients, such as whole wheat flour, oats, nuts, honey and seeds.
The American Dental Association held the first national observance of Children’s Dental Health Day in February 1949, and later lengthened the one-day event to a month-long celebration. Each year, the month is observed throughout the United States through health fairs, free dental screenings, classroom presentations and more. This year’s campaign slogan is “Fluoride in water prevents cavities! Get it from the tap!”
For more information on National Children’s Dental Health Month and good oral health habits for kids, please visit WDA.org.