Diet and dental health

Tooth decay can be prevented yet it is a serious problem for children. Findings from a recent survey showed a quarter of 5 year olds had experienced tooth decay[i]. Having teeth extracted was the sixth most common procedure in hospital for children under 5 years of age. It was also the most common reason for hospital admission for children aged 5 to 9 years old.

Why is poor dental health a problem?

Having a tooth extracted causes 60,000 missed days of school each year. Children with decayed teeth suffer pain and problems with eating and sleeping. The cost to the NHS of poor dental health is £3.4bn a year.

What causes tooth decay?

Tooth decay happens when the hard tissues on the surface of teeth are broken down by acids produced in the mouth by bacteria that use sugar as a food source. If these acid attacks on the teeth are frequent they will eventually cause the surface of the tooth to weaken and a hole, or cavity forms which may cause pain and infection.

Risk factors for tooth decay

Tooth decay tends to increases as a child’s diet starts to include foods and drinks other than breast milk or formula.

Children are more at risk of developing tooth decay if they are:

  • eating a poor diet containing a lot of sugar
  • brushing their teeth less than twice per day with fluoride toothpaste

Do children eat too much sugar?

Although children’ eat slightly less sugar than they used to they are still consuming, on average, the equivalent of 8 sugar cubes more than the recommended daily limit – often eating 11g just at breakfast.

Sugar from the diet

Sugar is often hidden in the food children eat. The list below shows the most common sources of sugar in the diet of children.

  1. Sugary soft drinks (including squashes, juice drinks, energy drinks, cola and other fizzy drinks) – 10%
  2. Buns, cakes, pastries and fruit pies – 10%
  3. Sugars, including table sugar, preserves and sweet spreads – 9%
  4. Biscuits – 9%
  5. Breakfast cereals – 8%
  6. Chocolate confectionery – 7%
  7. Sugar confectionery – 7%
  8. Yoghurt, fromage frais and other dairy desserts – 6%
  9. Ice cream – 5%
  10. Puddings – 4%

How to prevent tooth decay

Advice from Public Health England on how to prevent tooth decay stresses the importance of reducing sugar in the diet as follows[ii]

  • Swap sugary drinks and snacks such as split-pot yoghurts for lower or no sugar alternatives, including lower-sugar yoghurts or no-added sugar juice drinks.
  • Avoid sweetened breakfast cereals. Choose whole grain unsweetened cereals instead. A chopped banana can be a great way to add sweetness to a bowl of breakfast cereal.
  • Limit fruit juice and smoothies to a total of 150ml (a small glass) per day and only consume with meals.

Foods are low in sugar if they contain 5g or less of total sugar per 100g of the food.  Some packaging uses a colour-coded system that makes it easy to choose foods that are lower in sugar. Choose less ‘red’ labelled products.

Best snacks to eat for your teeth

Sugars occur naturally in foods such as fruit and milk but we don't need to cut down on these types of sugars.  So, milk and milk alternatives, such as Oat Drink, are great drinks for children to enjoy.

Fruit, nuts and vegetable sticks are all great snacks for children that get hungry between meals.

When to brush teeth

Brushing teeth twice a day (last thing at night before you go to bed and on one other occasion) with fluoride toothpaste and having regular check-ups with a dentist can help to keep your teeth healthy. and remind them to ‘spit not rinse’, as rinsing washes away the protective fluoride. Brushing should start as soon as the first tooth appears.

[i] Public Health England (PHE) 2015 National Dental Epidemiology Survey of 5 year old children

[ii] Public Health England (PHE) Change4Life Campaign

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