Nutrition Tips to Protect and Strengthen Your Child’s Teeth and Gums

Did you know that tooth decay is one of the most common “chronic childhood diseases” in North America? Untreated cavities can lead to swelling, pain, and discomfort in your child. Tooth decay can negatively impact a child’s sleep quality, ability to speak, eat, and learn in school. Even though is it such a common chronic disease, tooth decay is largely preventable! As a dietitian and parent of young kids myself, I know that spreading the word about how nutrition impacts oral health is super important. Fortunately, there are many things we can do to help optimize our child’s oral health, setting them up for a future of nourished bodies and bright smiles!

Here are my top nutrition tips to help support oral health and prevent tooth decay in children:
1. Nourish those little teeth!

There are many key nutrients that are essential in the development of strong healthy teeth and gums. It’s important that kids get lots of variety in foods and nutrients in the early years when they are forming their baby teeth, setting the stage for strong adult teeth to take their place. Vitamin A, D, C and calcium are a few key nutrients involved in the development and maintenance of strong teeth and healthy gums.

Vitamin A is a powerful antioxidant and helps to heal wounds and infection. This nutrient is also
key in building both bones and strong teeth!

Vitamin D is needed to properly absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus for the proper mineralization of teeth and bones. This nutrient is important in maintaining a strong immune system, helping to reduce risk of periodontal disease (which is characterized by tooth decay, swollen painful gums, and weakened, loose teeth).

Vitamin C also contributes to wound health and is important for the maintenance of healthy gums. Without enough vitamin C, there is much higher risk of gum disease characterized by inflammation, swelling and bleeding gums.

Calcium is an essential nutrient not only important for bone health, but is also a key mineral in building strong teeth. Calcium helps form the outer layer of the tooth (called the tooth enamel) which helps to protect the tooth against erosion and bacterial invasion.
Meal/Snack Ideas Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients Included!

Mango Smoothie: 1 cup of frozen, mango, ½ cup plain Greek yogurt, 1 cup of milk, 1 tbsp. of chia seeds. Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients included: vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, and calcium

Carrots and Hummus: 1 cup, carrot sticks and ¼ cup of hummus. Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients Included: Vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium

Scrambled Eggs on Toast with Fruit: 2 scrambled eggs mixed with ¼ cup of shredded cheese, 1 slice of whole grain toast, 1 medium orange. Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients included: vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, and calcium

Tofu, Bell Pepper and Bok Choy Stir-fry: Approximately 1 cup of veggies (Bok choy and red bell pepper), with ½ cup of firm tofu, with rice on the side. Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients included: vitamin A, vitamin C and calcium

Cauliflower and Date Smoothie: 1 cup of frozen cauliflower, 4 pitted dates (soak in some hot water for a few minutes before blending), 2 tbsp. of peanut butter, dash of cinnamon, 1 cup of fresh spinach leaves, 1 cup of milk. Blend until smooth! Tooth-Strengthening Nutrients included: vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin C, and calcium

*Note: Your kiddo may need to eat a bigger or smaller portion of food than listed in the table, depending on their own individual growing needs and hunger level.

2. Offer water as the go-to beverage
Sipping water to stay hydrated throughout the day is a great habit to model for your kids! Not only does staying hydrated improve cognitive function, focus, energy levels and digestion, it also helps maintain good saliva production! Why is having enough saliva important (you may be wondering)? Saliva helps to regularly wash away food and harmful bacteria from your teeth. It also helps to neutralize acidity and fight harmful bacteria that lead to tooth decay.

Beverages high in simple sugars and acidic ingredients such as fruit juices, sport drinks and carbonated drinks can increase risk of cavities and tooth decay. This is why I recommend offering your kiddos water most often between meals, and if you do offer sweetened beverages, serve with meals or snacks! It is important that your child doesn’t feel like they are “bad” for drinking juice or “unhealthy” for wanting pop. Over-restriction can lead to feelings of deprivation and guilt which can disrupt their relationship with food. Let’s discuss more about the importance of food relationship and food neutrality in tip number three!

3. Serve treat foods alongside meals and snacks
Research clearly shows that foods high in added sugars increase risk of dental caries, especially when they are eaten on their own or are eaten often throughout the day. BUT we also know that over-restriction of certain foods (i.e., candies, sweets, cakes, cookies, etc.) can have a negative impact on your child’s relationship with food. This is because, when certain foods are off limits or put on a pedestal as “special treats”, they become that much more enticing to kids. Restricting these foods can create feelings of deprivation, which triggers overconsumption, eventually causing feelings of guilt around eating the restricted food. Guilt is especially common when these foods are labeled as “junk food” or “unhealthy” in the home. So how can we let our kids enjoy all foods, without guilt, while still protecting their teeth?

The good news is, if you serve “treat foods” with a balanced meal or snack on occasion, it will help put them on a level playing field. This takes the morality out of food, and is an important step to creating a food neutral home. When kids don’t feel guilt with certain foods, they have a much easier time staying calm and regulating their eating based on internal cues versus external food rules and pressures from diet culture.

Another benefit of offering higher sugar foods with a meal or snack, is that the sugar is less likely to sit against the tooth for long. For example, let’s say you offer your child chocolate with their supper meal. If they are hungry, they will, more than likely, go on to eat other foods on their plate as well. This helps to surround the teeth with more protective saliva and food to help dilute the added sugar from the previously enjoyed chocolate. It’s a win-win for your both child’s oral health, and relationship with food!

Nutrition is key to oral health, but nothing can replace a yearly visit to the dentist and a solid oral hygiene routine. The CDC recommends that parents brush their children’s teeth twice daily with fluoride containing toothpaste (make sure to teach them to spit out extra toothpaste in the sink!). It is also recommended that children drink water that contains fluoride, as this mineral helps prevent tooth decay and promotes good oral health! Make sure to read more about community water fluoridation and guidelines if you have any questions on the topic.