Diet and Dental Health: The Dairy Advantage
“Say Cheese!” I often say this before taking pictures of family or friends. I don’t know if uttering these words results in a better photo but, as a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, I’m aware of studies showing that consuming cheese and other dairy foods as part of a healthful diet contributes to a healthy smile.
February is National Children’s Dental Health Month, a time to increase awareness of the benefits of dental health and strategies to achieve it for children, their parents, teachers, and others. Tooth decay is the most common chronic childhood disease both nationally and in Michigan. Do you know that 58% of third-grade Michigan students have experienced tooth decay, which can interfere with their social development and academic success? Prevention of this oral health disease is important.
Tooth decay occurs when bacteria in dental plaque comes into contact with sugar in the mouth, causing acid to attack the teeth. Strategies to reduce tooth decay include brushing teeth twice a day, flossing daily, visiting your dentist regularly, and consuming a balanced, nutritious diet containing dairy foods, fruits and vegetables, grains, and protein foods such as lean meats, eggs, and beans.
Diet’s Role in Dental Health. The impact of foods and beverages on risk of tooth decay depends on their form, how often sugary or acidic foods and beverages are consumed, their nutritional make-up, and the combination of foods eaten.
Grazing on sugar-containing foods with minimal nutritional value such as candy, especially hard or sticky candies, cookies, cakes, and snack foods like chips, or sipping on acidic beverages such as soda, lemonade, juices, and sports drinks can increase risk of tooth decay. Prolonged exposure of teeth to sugary foods and drinks provides food for bacteria, which can lead to acid production, erosion of tooth enamel, and eventually tooth decay. Because some nutritious, acidic foods such as tomatoes and citrus fruits can be harmful for tooth enamel, these foods should be consumed as part of a meal, rather than by themselves. Also, while some dried fruits like raisins are nutritious, they are sticky and can adhere to teeth, increasing the risk of tooth decay. Fresh fruit is a better choice for dental health.
Don’t Overlook Dairy’s Benefits. A number of foods help protect teeth from decay because of the nutrients they provide, which help build tooth enamel, and/or their ability to stimulate saliva production, which washes harmful acids and food particles away from teeth and helps neutralize acid. As discussed in a previous blog, studies have shown that dairy foods like cheese, milk, and plain yogurt are beneficial for dental health. These foods provide children with protein, vitamins and minerals, especially calcium and phosphorus, not only to support their growth and development, but also to build strong teeth and resist tooth decay.
In particular, certain cheeses such as aged Cheddar, Swiss, Mozzarella, and Monterey Jack help fight tooth decay. The American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry identifies cheese, yogurt, and chocolate milk, as well as vegetables and peanut butter, as healthy snacks for children. Findings from a study suggest that a higher intake of cheese and other dairy foods during pregnancy may reduce risk of childhood tooth decay.
Dental Health Tips. Children today are faced with a bewildering array of food choices, from fresh produce and many nutritious dairy products to sugar-laden convenience meals and snack foods. To help parents and other care providers get kids on the right track to dental health, the American Dental Association recommends the following tips:
- Keep added sugar to a minimum by offering children nutritious, tooth friendly food and beverage choices. Save sugary foods and drinks for mealtime.
- Limit between-meal snacks. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods such as cheese, yogurt, fruits, vegetables, or nuts.
- If your kids chew gum, make it sugarless.
- Monitor consumption of beverages – instead of soft drinks, encourage children to choose water (particularly fluoridated) and milk.
- Help children develop good brushing and flossing habits.
- Schedule regular visits for children with a dentist.
Bottom Line. Achieving and maintaining a healthy smile starts in childhood and can be accomplished by encouraging good oral health practices, including consuming a nutritious diet containing dairy foods.