Let’s Talk Food & Drink Choices

I have to be honest, I find this a relatively sensitive subject to address. I mean, it’s a personal subject that which we elect to eat and, in turn, introduce to our children. All the same, it’s a great subject due to the fact that what we take up into our bodies begins in our mouth and healthy choices are a great topic of discussion! This blog subject is to address our food choices and how they really relate to an increased risk of cavities (not to mention overall body health). Let me make a disclaimer that I am not a sugar-free, carbohydrate-free mommy of three. I too juggle rushing out the door and what will we all have for dinner as we dart in and out of after school engagements. Our weekends can be rather hectic and some food groups might be repeated more than I care to admit. This really can all be in the name of survival. I am not preaching perfection! I advise my parents based on trends I note or commonalities in our social structure. My kids also come across candies and treats, and not only from other people.

In my daily dialogue with parents about what their kids are eating and drinking, I chime in that there is no perfect recipe to be cavity-free, but there are habits that we can fall into that can increase the risks. I really feel that I have learned so much about the daily life food choices I have made for the sake of convenience. We likely share in similar food choices seeing as how we are all dancing about with our kids, juggling numerous responsibilities. More than just preaching, I prefer to have a friendly, no-judgement relationship with my parents. I really feel that life is incredibly hectic for all of us and it seems exceptionally frustrating to go to the dentist and hear your little one has cavities. I see the frustration in parents’ eyes and the feeling of letting their kids down. This is not a report card. I don’t even keep a “cavity-free” club because kids themselves feel upset to hear they have a cavity. I am here as your liaison to better understanding of the process and an advisor on what changes to make. I ask for routine exams because if missed every 6 months, it’s super easy for cavities to get growing!

junk food aisle in grocery store

So why has the subject of food and drinks made it to this blog? Well, we are faced with a plethora of options, frankly. It’s not such a simple answer any more of what your kids will drink and it varies by age groups. Just to give a visual, walk into any grocery store, convenient store or gas station and you will be welcomed by an abundance of options of beverages and convenient snacks. This is what our market places now look like because we really are a society on-the-go. Drive (or walk) down any city street and you can’t go far without bumping into a Starbucks Frappuccino advertisement or a treat offering. Snacks now are offered in convenient pouches or bags because the consumers that we are, really are constantly in movement. I’m writing to discuss the hidden sugar intake in some of these—not to call out any brands, but to bring awareness to the subject.

Let’s begin to understand the steps of the development of cavities. The cavity process requires these parts: a bacteria source, a sugar source, a susceptible tooth, and time. We all carry a very specific bacteria involved in the cavity development: streptococcus mutans. This little bugger initiates the cavity process by being fed sugar from what we eat, creating an acid. Cavities are an active process of lower pH levels (more acidic saliva). It is the acidity level that allows for the tooth structure to become demineralized (eaten away), hence a susceptible tooth. This combination of bacteria-laden plaque, sitting proximal to our teeth, in a sugary, acidic salivary flow, is only awaiting time to actually cause the demineralized cavity.

We are all learning so much more about the breakdown of our carbohydrates into sugars. We know the more whole grain, the less the sugar. But honestly, it’s not that many of us (myself included) that are really introducing these whole foods with exclusivity in our children’s diets. Every time we eat, the food choices we make affect the pH levels of our saliva. Our children in particular snack more often than we do and carry sippy cups in early years. The frequency of snacking easily lowers the salivary pH, maintaining a risky environment of sugary acidic attacks on these tiny pearly teeth. We all can agree that our little ones sure do snack more often than as when they are older. They are used to having a drink handy as well, be it a sippy cup or a no-drip rimmed cup.

This is a great subject matter itself: drinks! I find this to be the sneakiest of culprits to lowering the pH. I mean, who can see all the hidden sugar within the solution? I ask that parents be aware of the amount of sugar on labels for foods and drinks. It’s the easiest way for kids to ingest tons of sugar without our knowing it. Sports drinks, juices, any flavored milk, frozen coffee drinks—all these are to be checked for increases in sugar. The container in which they come in is far greater a serving size than the kids should take in, but they do. My favorite advice for parents is to drink WATER! If that’s not always cutting it, dilute the sports drink or juice and keep the frozen coffee drinks to a limited intake; change the serving size. Milk naturally has sugar, no matter what milk you ingest. Keep it white—no additional flavors to sweeten it. The sweet taste that our kids are getting used to alters their palate. No longer will low-sugar berries and foods appeal to them because they are acutely aware of how much less of “flavor” they offer compared to the sweet stuff. Conveniently packaged pouches of yogurt are also in my category of sweetened milk. Sure, they taste great and are easy to pack, but they also contain far more sugar than we should have them consume. Look for low-sugar options per serving size as consumers!

Every age group has its vice or lifestyle that might lend to higher sugar intake. I try to guide my families in these regards. I find that most are already acutely aware of the toddler-age advice of limited juice intake, having already diluted it. Thankfully most of my parents are also in the habit of using sippy cups, no-drip rimmed cups or straw cups sooner with only water while on-the-go. This is exceptionally helpful in the young years of trying to maintain healthy hydration and dietary habits. I do find that as our kids get older and into sports, or the teenage coffee shop social, we increase risks of liquid sugar intake in very critical years. These are the years of braces and varying stages of the developing permanent teeth—or as I call them—your “forever-ever teeth”! I want parents to be aware of the drink options their kids are commonly exposed to, be it sports drinks, sodas, coffee drinks because of the frequency of acid attacks the sugar intake is causing.

Being acutely aware of the grams of sugar in the foods our kids (and ourselves) take in daily can actually be frightening! I think we all could benefit from minding this and reserving additional sugars in treats. Ice cream and cakes as treats adhere less to the nooks and crannies of teeth than candies. It’s the same example of Oreos and Cheetos I use below—anything that sticks to the teeth, allows more access of time to a susceptible tooth. Thankfully there are food products on the market aware of the excess sugars, offering low-sugar options. They provide tasty snacks with less sugar and more healthy fillers. It might take time to adjust to some of these snacks, but it’s worth it. I tend to stray from food packaging designed for kids. At least always compare the sugar to see if it’s a good decision.

It’s no surprise kids come into the office for a cleaning having eaten a snack. This is actually a great teaching moment for me as food remains in the grooves and in between walls of teeth. I engage parents to peer over my shoulder as I demonstrate how to brush and floss. It really takes good focus for some foods to be properly removed from these grooves and in-between walls. The perfect examples of the tenacity of some foods are Cheetos and Oreos! Seriously, they are incredibly difficult to remove even after bouts of brushing, flossing and rigorous swishing and spitting. Look at the images below to see how these foods stick into the grooves. Their bright and dark colors allow you to see them clearly, but other foods aren’t so easy to see. It provides a great visual on the behavior of food retention on the teeth that over time can cause cavities if not properly brushed and flossed. Say “cheese”!

Snapshot of young teeth after eating cheetos
Snapshot of young teeth after eating oreos

Speaking of “cheese”, did you know that eating cheese helps to decrease cavity risks? Cheese is shown to elevate salivary pH making it more basic. That’s the opposite of what most food choices containing sugar do (they make your saliva more acidic). I love the idea of kids snacking on cheese and yes, there are conveniently packaged options out there! I could have been French with my love of cheese and I try to pass that along to my kiddos!

Another great idea that you will hear me say is WATER, WATER, WATER! Nothing hydrates the body better. I tell my little patients that water feeds their bodies. I ask them if they think we would feed our little gardens of flowers and vegetables juice or water to grow. They crinkle their noses and look at me like I’m absolutely nutty! I tell them that their bodies are also growing, and like their garden flowers and veggies, WATER is their best choice! Kids are so smart. Seriously, though, I use water to cleanse our mouths following some food groups. I carry so much water around with us to try to dilute any sugar intake from our foods and it’s the best drink for maintaining hydration. “The solution to pollution is dilution”, that’s what my oral surgery attending would always say and I agree. Let’s dilute any sugar accumulation with water. I prefer they rinse and spit, otherwise it’s just all going down the drain to their bellies!

Thanks for tuning in again! Keep posted for the following subject: Oral Hygiene, Ah! I will discuss other tips I find exceptionally helpful, including early assessments! It’s clear that we all eat, but are we all setting up our kids with excellent brushing and flossing to lessen the cavity risks? Let me review some of my best advice. It’s true that I prefer few cavities for my youngsters, not more!