In continuation of the last blog, “Are cavities genetic”?, we discussed how often “genetics” or “just bad teeth” are blamed for children’s cavities when the real culprits are habits and bacteria. First let me say this is not an indictment on parents who have children with cavities or any form of judgement. It is about having good information and reducing the risk for cavities in our children.
Cavities are predictable and preventable in almost all circumstances. Today’s blog will focus on diet and what two primary factors in the diet affect a child’s risk for cavities (or adults for that matter), frequency of intake and consistency of food.
Frequency of intake is one of the most important factors in risk for cavities and it is often something that is not on anyone’s radar. What do I mean by frequency of intake? Well, in the dental world we call it the “demin/remin” cycle. Basically every time you eat or drink anything the PH of your mouth dips to an acidic level. The reason for this is because the mouth is where digestion of food begins. While you are eating, and 30 minutes after the last bite or sip, your mouth is acidic. This helps to begin the breakdown of the food, but it also breaks down the teeth. The acid pulls minerals out of the enamel during this phase. About 30 minutes after the food is cleared the PH rises to a more neutral level. During this time, your saliva has minerals in it and these minerals get re-deposited into the enamel. So how this affects your risk for cavities is how often your mouth is “acidic” and how long it gets to be in the “remin” phase during the day. For “grazers”, or kids who have a little sip of milk, go play legos for an hour, come back, have another sip of milk, go play for a while, come back an hour later for a few goldfish…etc…their mouth is acidic much of the day! That means that their teeth aren’t having time to recover and are getting chalkier and chalkier, or weaker and weaker, until ultimately they “cavitate” and have a hole.
What is the goal then with frequency of food, especially for toddlers or picky eaters? I recommend striving for scheduled eating and aiming for 2-3 hour breaks between meals and snacks. During this time, NOTHING but water is consumed. So lets take a sample schedule, 7AM-breakfast, 10AM snack, 12:30PM-lunch, 3:00PM snack, 6PM dinner. When lunch is over for example, and your child says they are all full and want to play, everything is put away. Nothing but water is offered until snack time at 3:00PM. For kids used to sipping and snacking all day, there may be a big fuss at first. With nutrition as my background degree, I think eating often is healthy. I also think 5 meals/snacks per day is plenty of times to get proper nutrition in and some sweets if you want. The key is getting those rest times in for the teeth to repair.
The other key component is consistency of the food. How long does it take you after eating a dried fruit roll up to clear all the sticky stuff from your molars and teeth? Well guess what, kids don’t clear! They let it sit and say, “Yum, my mouth still tastes good an hour later!” I have a great photo in my office I like to show kids who eat lots of sticky foods. It is of a 7 year old’s teeth who ate a dried fruit roll up. The picture was taken 1 hour after the child ate it. It shows all the grooves and between spaces filled with the sugary snack. The next page shows all the cavities in the very same areas. Kids catch on quick, especially if they have cavities. If you want desserts in your home or some sweet treats but don’t want cavities here are some ideas. Offer sweet treats that clear faster, like ice cream, pudding, jello, popsicles, chocolate and the like. Avoid things that stick in the teeth for a long time like dried fruit roll ups, airheads, oreos and the like. Or, if you want to enjoy the sticky foods occasionally, make the house rule to brush or at least rince your mouth after the treat. Also, try to keep the sweets, juices, sodas, etc with the meal or snacks, not in those 2-3hour down times.
Longer than I expected this blog to be, but I hope it was helpful. Cavities are predictable. Research says 2 out of 3 children who show up with a cavities, then get them all fixed, will be back within 18months (sometimes less) with new cavities! That happens if we just “fill the holes” but don’t get to the root cause. Cavities are preventable. These are two of the most common issues I am able to help parents identify in children with cavities. I see families who make the change from grazing to scheduled eating and who give up or brush after the sticky snacks come back with no new cavities, and it feels great! I see other families who can’t make the changes for whatever reason, and the kids just keep getting cavities.