How to Help Your Kids Develop Healthy Teeth & Attractive Smiles

flag on Texas mapIt’s not the nicest news in the world: When it comes to health, our kids here in Texas have a long ways to go.

According to the latest report from WalletHub, Texas kids rank 49th out of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia. We rank just below Mississippi and just above Louisiana and Nevada.

They do a little better with their oral health, ranking 31st, better than South Dakota kids but worse than those in Idaho. But in terms of physical activity, nutrition, and obesity, Texas drops back to 38th, nestled between Wyoming and North Carolina.

Yet think about how much better their oral health could be if we improved in some of those other areas. After all, your mouth is connected with the rest of your body. Support the health of the one, and you support the health of the whole.

Of course, nutrition is perhaps the biggest and most obvious common denominator between oral and systemic health for kids and adults alike. Foods that contribute to obesity and other health problems are a problem for the teeth, as well.

We call them “foods,” but it might be more accurate to call them “products to eat.” Most are hyper-processed goods for consumption, not the natural nutrients we were designed to thrive on. Not only do they contain a ton of chemical preservatives, colors, and other additives (here are 12 particularly sketchy ones); they also tend to be loaded with sugars, refined starches, and grain carbohydrates. These are all big no-nos to any pediatric practitioner.

Those ingredients are also known as “fermentable carbs,” or carbs that begin to be broken down into simple sugars in the mouth. Think beyond just the standard sweet stuff to foods like bread and pasta, chips and French fries. Fermentable carbs are the favorite food of the bacteria, fungi, and other harmful microbes that are involved in tooth decay, gum disease, and other oral health problems.

As they feast, those microbes generate a lot of highly acidic waste. This damages the enamel that normally protects the teeth, giving the pathogens more access to the delicate living tissues underneath that hard casing.

tooth diagramBetween the enamel and the living pulp is a layer of tissue called dentin. It’s made up of microscopic tubules – about three miles’ worth within each tooth! – through which fluid consistently moves. Normally, that movement is outward, away from the tooth, which helps repel harmful microbes.

You can think of it as one of the natural defense systems for your teeth.

But here’s the really interesting thing: It’s been shown that when you eat fermentable carbs, the flow reverses. When that happens, acids and pathogens alike are drawn into the tooth, where they can do great damage.

A healthful diet, on the other hand – one based on whole food, real food – delivers the minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients needed to support the ongoing, natural remineralization of the enamel so the teeth stay healthy and strong.

In fact, eating plenty of the good stuff is an even bigger influence on the health of the teeth than merely avoiding sugars and starches – so much so that we’ll be exploring the issue in our next post, along with more about just what “the good stuff” includes.

More, a real food diet tends to require more chewing, which is absolutely essential for the proper development of children’s teeth and their supporting tissues. A highly processed diet tends to be softer than one based on lightly prepared whole foods. Soft foods mean less chewing.

One result of this is that the dental arches don’t develop fully. They tend to be narrow, not allowing enough room for all teeth to erupt properly. This leads to crooked, misaligned teeth and a bite that’s “off” – and big orthodontic bills down the road.

This state of affairs also tends to reduce the size of the airway. This can lead to issues such as mouth breathing, sleep apnea, postural problems, sinus issues, and even GI troubles down the road. (To learn more about the relationship between healthy orofacial development and overall health, check out this excellent excerpt from Carol Vander Stoep’s book Mouth Matters.)

smiling boyWhile treatments such as dental sealants can offer helpful protection for your child, consistently providing healthy meals and limiting the number of hyper-processed products they consume is – along with practicing good hygiene – the number one thing you can do to help your kids develop healthy teeth and attractive smiles.

Just how important it is to limit fermentable carbs – a/k/a sugars – was summed up nicely in a paper published a few years back in the Journal of Dental Research:

Without sugars, the chain of causation is broken, so the disease does not occur…. Sugars start the process and set off a causal chain; the only crucial factor that determines the caries process in practice is sugars.

Quit the sugar, and you’ve just addressed the cause – not just of decay but a major factor in a great many systemic health problems, as well.

Image credits: Texas by AnonMoos based on image by Darwinek;
tooth diagram by KDS4444; boy by Gustavo Veríssimo; all via Wikimedia Commons