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Diet and Dental Health

The last decade has brought about tremendous changes in our thinking about the relation of diet to dental health. All these years it was assumed that sugar was the culprit causing tooth decay, and patients were advised by dentists to avoid sweets, especially sticky ones like chocolates.

The current concept of diet in relation to tooth decay has undergone a tremendous change, and if you have not been in touch, you are in for a big surprise!

Good nutrition certainly contributes to overall good health, but cannot ensure that your children will develop strong, disease-resistant teeth. Other factors are equally important in preventing tooth decay. Many factors influence whether your children will develop cavities, and diet does not matter too much if you pay attention to important steps, such as practicing good oral hygiene, getting enough fluoride daily, going for regular dental check-ups, and having your dentist apply a protective sealant to your back teeth.

Many of the foods we eat, including some of the most valuable foods from the standpoint of human nutrition, provide nourishment for the bacteria in the mouth. These bacteria act on the sugar in the diet and secrete acids, that can erode enamel, and lead to cavities. We feed the bacteria in our mouth everytime we eat carbohydrates. These come in two types:

  1. Sugars

  2. Cooked starch - like bread and biscuits, which are broken down to sugars by an enzyme in the saliva. The bacteria in the mouth then treat them as though you had eaten plain sugar. Sweets like cake and candy are not much worse for your teeth than bread, biscuits, potato chips, fruit salad, and a glass of milk.

To the bacteria in your mouth, sugar is sugar, no matter what package it comes in. So candy is as bad as, or as good as, apples for the teeth.

Recent research shows that some candy is potentially less destructive to the teeth than bread, biscuits and some fruits (apples, bananas) which were previously considered safe or even protective against cavities, may actually promote tooth decay.

Two important factors affecting tooth decay are:

  1. How often you eat: The mouth normally contains a wide variety of bacteria. These bacteria take advantage of food whenever it is available. So they become active whether you eat a full meal or just a small snack, and they remain active - producing acids that can cause cavities - for about 30 minutes after you eat. This is how frequent eating contributes to tooth decay, and can be easily modified by exerting a bit of self-control.

  2. How long a particular food stays in the mouth after you eat it: The most commonly thought of sticky foods are chocolates. The chocolate is mostly sugar that dissolves in saliva and is cleared from the mouth fairly quickly. However, foods like biscuits and potato chips stay longer in the mouth than chocolates. This is because these do not dissolve in saliva and clear the mouth until they have been broken down into simpler sugars by the enzymes in the saliva. This process is likely to take hours, and in the meantime, the bacteria have a feast and secrete acids, which destroy the enamel of your teeth.

Milk is an excellent source of calcium and children need milk daily as long as they are growing. It definitely helps during the stage when teeth are being formed. But once the teeth are fully formed, calcium intake ceases to have much effect. Hence, milk is harmful if retained in the mouth for long periods, and it does not help in preventing tooth decay.
Snacks like bread, biscuits and potato chips are harmful if not brushed-off soon after eating.
Cheese can be considered to be an anti-cavity food. It stimulates flow of saliva, which may help to repair early cavity formation. This food item has universal appeal. You may serve cheese as a snack, or at the end of a meal.
Like most sugars, chocolates play a role in tooth decay. But they have been unfairly singled out as a major cause of cavities. All foods containing sugar or cooked starch have the potential to promote tooth decay. Thus, chocolate is no more harmful than a snack of potato chips or an areated drink.
Areated drinks are acidic in nature. They have the capacity to destroy the enamel of the tooth. We see a lot of youngsters having extensive decay caused by excessive consumption of areated drinks.
Fruits and vegetables are natural cleansers of the biting surfaces of the teeth, due to the high fibre content in them. However, most of them also contain sugar and they do not get cleared from the mouth very fast.

As long as children are not eating all day long and are brushing properly with a fluoride toothpaste, we can stop nagging them about snack selection.

For those of us who are now using a fluoride toothpaste, even the issue of frequency of eating has become less significant than it was in the past. Concepts concerning diet and cavities have changed dramatically. Today there is decreasing emphasis on dietary counselling as the most effective strategy to prevent cavities in children. The traditional advice to avoid sticky sweets and between-meal snacks is being relaxed for most cavity-free children who are exposed to fluoride and comprehensive dental care. Many children need snacks daily to help meet their nutritional needs, and parents should choose and offer snack-foods accordingly.

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Inspite of a snack, a beautiful smile can be maintained with a brush.


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