Kids love to snack, but snacking can pose challenges to keeping teeth healthy. Smart snacking involves both strategic snack-time planning and selecting certain types of foods. Both can help limit the potential for tooth decay.
Why is snacking more likely to promote tooth decay?
The bacteria that cause dental cavities feed on any carbohydrate source we eat – sugar, bread, potatoes, rice, crackers, chips, pretzels, gummies, fruit snacks, juice, etc. The bacteria eat the carbohydrates and convert them to an acid. This acid is what causes a cavity.
Our saliva helps to cancel out the effects of the acid. However, if kids snack throughout the day, the continuous production of acid overwhelms the saliva’s ability to buffer or counteract the acid and cavities are more likely to develop.
What is considered smart snacking?
Smart snacking is about limiting how often kids are snacking in between meals and choosing foods that are better than others in terms of type and texture. It’s better to have the whole snack at one time, rather than a little bit all throughout the day. It’s also helpful to limit snacking on carbohydrates and processed foods as much as possible. Processed foods, such as crackers, chips, sugar-sweetened yogurt tubes, etc., contain a lot of simple carbohydrates which are broken down quickly into glucose by enzymes in saliva. Glucose is the energy source for the bacteria that cause cavities.
Limiting foods that are chewy and sticky helps too. These foods can get stuck in the grooves of the back teeth and can sit on the teeth for long periods of time increasing the risk for cavities.
What are considered better snack choices?
–For many reasons, including keeping teeth healthy, whole foods that are minimally processed (like an apple) will always be better than processed carbohydrate-rich foods (like sugar-sweetened applesauce).
-Snacks that are higher in protein and lower in carbohydrates make especially good choices. Nuts and part-skim cheese are great in this regard and also help build strong teeth.
-Even though they may contain some sugar, fruits and vegetables are a good choice as they provide many important nutrients. Harder or crunchy options like apples, celery and carrots are especially good. Hard foods rub against the teeth in a way that can sometimes help brush off dental plaque buildup (film of bacteria and sugars that forms on teeth) – almost like supplemental brushing. Sticky dried fruits like raisins have nutritional benefits, but can get stuck in the grooves of back teeth.
What else should be considered when planning snacks?
There’s a tendency to classify hard, crunchy snacks like granola and trail mix differently from candy bars and sticky fruit candies. Although these items are sometimes thought of as healthy, they actually have a lot of carbohydrates. Also, even though they are crunchy, granola and trail mix can easily get stuck in the grooves of the teeth.
Juice, sports drinks and soda should be limited. Basically, anything other than water (even milk) has sugars and can cause cavities. If kids have drinks other than water, they should follow the same rules as snack food: drink in one sitting and limit the number.
What else can help?
Kids are kids and so occasionally they’re going to snack on things kids love like crackers, chips, and candy. The most important thing we can do to help limit the risk of tooth decay is ensure they develop good oral hygiene habits. If they keep plaque from building up on their teeth by brushing and flossing, the risk for decay will still be pretty low. Simply put, if they get the food debris off of their teeth quickly, they decrease their risk of tooth decay.
For toddlers, parents should be brushing and flossing for them. As children age, allow them to brush and floss on their own, but monitor and follow up to make sure all areas of the mouth are cleaned. This should continue in elementary school as most children do not develop the hand skills needed to brush independently until the upper grades of elementary school.
Teens need to spend even more time on their oral hygiene each day to limit their risk. Teenagers sometimes “forget” to brush so parents need to check to ensure they’re maintaining good oral hygiene. Brushing at school can be difficult so they should brush when they get home after they’ve eaten their after school snack. [If teens have braces, their risk jumps significantly. The brackets and wires become a prime spot for food debris to collect so additional brushing and flossing is recommended for those with braces.]
For all ages, smart snacking is important for keeping teeth healthy. Making kids aware of good timing and good choices – as well as reminding them to keep up their oral hygiene habits – has several benefits for good health.
Dr. William Dahlke, Jr., dentist – Our dental team specializes in the dental care of infants to teens and individuals with special health care needs.