“My child brushes and flosses their teeth every day, how could they possibly have cavities?”
It can come as a big – and unwelcome – surprise when you find out your child has a cavity in spite of their diligent oral hygiene routine. And, yup, brushing and flossing and regular preventative dental care are the most well-known ways to keep kids’ teeth and gums healthy.
But, nutrition is an unsung hero. What and how often kids eat directly impacts their oral health. And, when kids are deficient in certain key vitamins and minerals, it can also result in issues, ranging from an increased risk of tooth decay to bleeding gums.
Innovative Pediatric Dentistry is here to break it all down. In this post, our Naperville pediatric dentists will talk about nutrition for healthy teeth and gums, as well as the vitamins and minerals needed to support children’s oral health.
Diet and Oral Health
Foods that cause cavities
While genetics, medications and other factors can make children more prone to oral health issues, when tooth decay isn’t the result of a lack of brushing and flossing, it often boils down to what kids are eating.
Even some seemingly healthy(ish) foods — we’re looking at you, crackers – are notorious cavity causers. This is because the two factors behind tooth decay are carbohydrates and time. When kids drink or eat something with sugar or starches in it, the bacteria in the mouth feed on the carbohydrates and release acids that erode the enamel.
The acid attacks last for about 30 minutes after eating or drinking. Then, saliva swoops in and saves the days by neutralizing the acids and depositing the lost minerals back into the teeth.
So, as long as kids are having sugars and simple carbohydrates in moderation and regularly removing food debris and plaque from their teeth, they can avoid tooth decay and keep their enamel strong.
However, there is also a time component. The longer the carbohydrates sit on the teeth, the longer the acid attacks go on. Saliva isn’t able to remineralize the teeth enough to balance out the mineral loss, leading to tooth decay and, eventually, cavities.
Foods that get stuck in the teeth like gummy candy, crackers, white bread and dried fruit, prolong the acid attacks and are more likely to contribute to tooth decay than things that rinse off the teeth easily like ice cream or yogurt, though they also contain sugar.
Slowly snacking or sipping on a drink over a long period of time makes the acid attacks go on and on as well, increasing the risk of cavities.
Nutrition for Cavity Prevention
The good news is, knowing how tooth decay in children occurs, means you can take measures to prevent it. To keep cavities at bay:
- Have kids enjoy sugars, simple carbohydrates and sticky foods in moderation.
- Limit snacking to once or twice a day. Stick with foods that help to remineralize the teeth or that won’t cause cavities like cheese, nuts and seeds, carrot and celery sticks, firm fruits, etc.
- Encourage kids to eat or drink sugary and starchy treats in one sitting. Serve them with a larger meal when saliva production is at its peak, and have kids brush their teeth afterwards or rinse their mouth out really well with water.
- Aim for a well-rounded diet consisting of lean proteins, fresh fruit and vegetables in a variety of colors, healthy fats, dairy (or dairy alternatives) and complex carbohydrates.
- Choose fresh whole foods when possible. These foods tend to stick in the teeth less than their processed or dried counterparts and are usually eaten more quickly. For example, kids typically eat fresh grapes in one sitting and they don’t end up packed in between their teeth. Raisins, on the other hand, do stick in the teeth and last at room temperature for a long time, so people often eat them slowly.
Vitamins and Minerals for Kids’ Teeth and Gums
Having sugars and starches in moderation and minimizing the amount of time kids’ teeth are exposed to carbohydrates will go a long way in preventing cavities and gingivitis.
But, it’s also important for children to get an adequate amount of the key minerals and vitamins for strong teeth and gums. These nutritional building blocks create a foundation for a lifelong healthy smile:
Calcium is a mineral that helps strengthen tooth enamel and the jawbone. It makes teeth more resistant to acid erosion and tooth decay. The body is pretty talented at storing extra calcium in your teeth and bones, meaning it can make up for the calcium that’s lost due to normal wear and tear and cavity-causing acids.
When a child doesn’t get enough calcium in their diet, however, it makes it more difficult for the body to replace the lost minerals. The teeth then become susceptible to decay and breakage.
Thankfully, kids can get enough calcium to keep their teeth strong through a variety of sources. To maximize the oral health benefits, choose calcium-rich foods and beverages that don’t have a lot of added sugar. We’d recommend milk, yogurt, cheese, seeds, sardines, beans, tofu, lentils, almonds, leafy greens and fortified foods and drinks, such as non-dairy milk, cereal and orange juice.
Phosphorus joins forces with calcium to create the main structural component of tooth enamel and bones. It also works with calcium and vitamin D to rebuild and maintain enamel and tooth-supporting bone. Similar to calcium, a phosphorous deficiency makes kids more prone to cavities and tooth breakage.
The best sources of phosphorus include meat, poultry, milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, legumes, cashews, brown rice, potatoes, whole wheat bread, pumpkin seeds and seafood like sardines, tuna, salmon and scallops.
One of the best vitamins for teeth and gums is vitamin A. It helps with saliva production, and saliva is crucial for washing away food debris and plaque, neutralizing acids in the mouth and remineralizing the teeth, making them strong and cavity resistant. Vitamin A also boosts immunity and fights inflammation, thanks to its antioxidant properties. This keeps the gums and oral tissues healthy, reducing the risk of gingivitis and mouth sores, and ensuring the mouth heals quickly.
A review published in the Indian Journal of Applied Research found that a vitamin A deficiency is linked to gum disease, enamel defects and dry mouth.
Kids can get vitamin A through their diet by eating foods such as carrots, red and orange peppers, sweet potatoes, mango, cantaloupe, apricots, leafy greens, fish, liver and egg yolks.
Vitamin C plays a part in maintaining the jawbone and teeth. But, its biggest contribution in the mouth is in promoting healthy gums and oral soft tissues. Vitamin C aids in healing and keeps the connective tissues that hold the teeth in place strong. A lack of vitamin C may cause bleeding gums and gingivitis.
Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, berries, broccoli, sweet potatoes, green, orange and red peppers, leafy greens, cauliflower, tomatoes, brussels sprouts, papaya, watermelon, kiwi and mango.
There is one caveat though: Acidic sources of vitamin C like citrus fruits, while amazing for periodontal (gum) health, can hasten enamel erosion. To avoid this, mix up the foods and drinks your child is getting vitamin C from. And, have them brush their teeth before eating something acidic or wait an hour after eating or drinking it to brush. Brushing immediately afterwards can damage the temporarily weakened enamel.
Another of the vitamins for strong teeth and bones is vitamin D. It enhances bone density and helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus to harden enamel and remineralize the teeth. It also has anti-inflammatory properties for a decreased risk of gingivitis in kids.
A study determined that a severe vitamin D deficiency in early childhood can cause enamel defects that increase the risk of tooth decay. The researchers also found that people with a vitamin deficiency had a higher prevalence of gum inflammation and periodontitis (severe gum disease).
Kids can get vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, as well as through their diet with fatty fish, mushrooms and foods fortified with vitamin D, including cereal, milk and orange juice.
Other Nutrients Kids Need for Oral Health
While those listed above are the primary minerals and vitamins for healthy teeth and gums, a well-rounded diet is still essential. Iron, magnesium, potassium and B vitamins all work to create a healthy body and mouth too. Brown rice, leafy greens, bananas, nuts, seeds, beans, meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products will give your child the right balance for excellent oral health.
Schedule a Visit With a Naperville Pediatric Dentist
For more cavity prevention tips and a full array of preventative care, schedule an appointment for your child at Innovative Pediatric Dentistry in Naperville. Once we’ve examined your child and chatted with you about their lifestyle and needs, an expert dentist will work with you to create a personalized plan to give your child their healthiest smile.