choosing tomatoesThis time of year, with all of the candy and sweet treats, having a good review of healthy snack options is beneficial. Not only for our overall health, but also for the health of our teeth and mouth. While, I speak a lot about healthy snack choices for children, good habits start with us and I want everyone to benefit from these tips and suggestions.

Why does nutrition affect oral health?

A poor diet can lead to gum disease and tooth decay. Foods high in carbohydrates, sugars and starches greatly contribute to the production of plaque acids that attack the tooth enamel. Eventually these acids can cause tooth enamel to break down, forming a cavity.

Foods that contain sugars of any kind can contribute to tooth decay. Almost all foods, including milk and vegetables, contain some type of sugar; however; these foods are a necessary part of a healthy diet, because many of them also contain important nutrients. To help control the amount of sugar you consume, read food labels and choose foods and beverages that are low in added sugars.

How do sugars attack your teeth?

This all may seem like common sense so far, avoiding excessive amounts of candy and sugary foods/ drinks is beneficial for your body all the way around. But how exactly are the sugars so harmful to our teeth? There are many different types of bacteria that live in our mouth and when you put sugar in your mouth, the bacteria “gobble” up the sweet stuff and turn it into acids. These acids are powerful enough to dissolve the hard enamel that covers your teeth. That’s how cavities get started. If you don’t eat much sugar, the bacteria can’t produce as much of the acid that eats away enamel.

How can I “snack smart” to protect myself from tooth decay?

Before you start munching on a snack, ask yourself what’s in the food you’ve chosen. Is it loaded with sugar? Keep in mind that certain kinds of sweets can do more damage than others. Gooey or chewy sweets spend more time sticking to the surface of your teeth. Because sticky snacks stay in your mouth longer than foods that you quickly chew and swallow, they give your teeth a longer sugar bath. This is where some so called “healthy” snacks can also be harmful for your teeth. Foods such as raisins, dried apricots, and other fruit snacks are often considered a healthier snack choice, but these foods not only are high in sugars, but they are those sticky sugars that will be more harmful to your teeth.

You should also think about when and how often you eat snacks. Do you nibble on sugary snacks many times throughout the day, or do you usually just have dessert after dinner? Damaging acids form in your mouth every time you eat a sugary snack. The acids continue to affect your teeth for at least 20 minutes before they are neutralized and can’t do any more harm. So, the more times you eat sugary snacks during the day, the more often you feed bacteria the fuel they need to cause tooth decay.

When you’re deciding about snacks, think about:

  • The number of times a day you eat sugary snacks
  • How long the sugary food stays in your mouth
  • The texture of the sugary food (Chewy? Sticky?)

If you snack after school, before bedtime, or other times during the day, choose something without a lot of sugar or fat. There are lots of tasty, filling snacks that are less harmful to your teeth—and the rest of your body — than foods loaded with sugars and low in nutritional value. Snack smart!

Low-fat choices like raw vegetables, fresh fruits, or whole-grain crackers or bread are smart choices. Eating the right foods can help protect you from tooth decay and other diseases. Next time you reach for a snack; think about how you can snack smart. Be choosy!

Chelsea Brooks is a dental hygienist at the University of Vermont Medical Center Dental and Oral Health practice.


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