Good nutrition is essential for good physical health.
Nutrition also plays a key role in the development and maintenance of a
healthy mouth, especially the teeth and gums. The food we eat affects our
teeth. At the same time, the health or lack of health of our teeth and
gums affects what we can eat. Good dental health begins early in life and
must be practiced throughout life.
Tooth development begins shortly after conception,
usually between the sixth and eighth weeks of gestation and continues
throughout pregnancy. It seems to take severe nutritional deficiencies in
the mother to cause obvious changes in tooth formation in the child.
However, slight deficiencies may cause changes in tooth structure that
will leave a tooth at greater risk for decay later in life. A good diet
during pregnancy is always important.
However, nutrient excesses as well as nutrient
deficiencies, may play a role in congenital anomalies of the mouth.
Therefore, take supplements during pregnancy only on the advice of a
doctor or dietitian.
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Good nutrition is equally important during infancy,
childhood and adolescence. During these growth periods, primary and
permanent teeth are being mineralized. This occurs before they erupt into
the mouth. Fluoride intake from birth has been shown to reduce dental
caries (tooth decay) by as much as 60 percent. During tooth development,
fluoride is incorporated into the tooth structure making the tooth strong
and decay resistant.
Many community water supplies are fluoridated at the
rate of 1 ppm (1 part per million). This rate has proven safe and
effective at reducing dental caries. The normal daily intake from
fluoridated water is about 1 milligram per day. When teeth are forming, an
intake of more than 2 parts per million may cause fluorosis, a condition
in which tooth enamel becomes toughened, mottled and discolored. However,
teeth remain strong and resistant to decay.
If you live in an area where drinking water has little
or no fluoride, prescription fluoride drops or tablets may be prescribed
by your doctor. An alternative to supplements is the daily use of
fluoridated toothpaste and mouthwash. If you don't know the fluoride level
of your water, contact your local water department.
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The Decay Process
Brushing after meals and snacks is one of the best ways
to remove sugars and food particles from tooth surfaces.
The decay process begins when the bacteria that are
always present in the mouth break down components of saliva. These
components adhere to tooth enamel. This is the start of dental plaque.
Dental plaque is a clear, gelatinous material that
allows bacteria to remain on the teeth. If dental plaque is not removed
frequently (at least once a day) by proper brushing and flossing, the
plaque becomes tightly attached to the tooth and only mechanical cleaning
can remove it. This is why frequent visits to a dentist and regular,
thorough cleaning by a dental hygienist is very important.
Inside this dental plaque, the bacteria ferment dietary
carbohydrates for a food source. This fermentation produces lactic and
other acids. These acids demineralize the tooth enamel. As the tooth
demineralizes, bacteria move into the tooth, decay begins and a cavity is
Untreated dental caries are painful and can result in
tooth loss. Pain or loss of teeth may cause malnutrition. These conditions
often prevent a person from chewing and eating adequate amounts, as well
as eating some hard, high-fiber foods.
Bacteria need carbohydrates for food. By cutting back on
simple carbohydrates, the rate of dental caries can be reduced. Sucrose
(table sugar) is the carbohydrate bacteria prefer. However, other simple
carbohydrates, such as fructose, lactose and glucose, are easy to ferment
and also support bacteria growth.
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Simple sugars are found in many foods and have many
names. Some of these are table sugar, corn syrup, honey, molasses and
dextrose. By reading labels on food products, you can limit foods high in
simple sugars and thus reduce the chance of dental caries.
Bacteria also can ferment complex carbohydrates
(starches), but the process takes longer. However, many complex
carbohydrates are sticky and become lodged between teeth and gums. This
allows the bacteria time to ferment the carbohydrate. Meats and foods high
in fiber, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, help clean the teeth of
food particles and sugars during the chewing process. These foods promote
saliva flow, which helps rinse the teeth of food particles. Saliva also
neutralizes the acid.
Although fresh fruits and vegetables do contain
carbohydrates that can be fermented by bacteria, the fiber content
counteracts the effect and helps clean the teeth, therefore protecting
against dental caries. When we eat, we provide food for mouth bacteria.
Eating three meals a day is important for adequate energy and nutrient
intake, but snacking between meals presents special dental health
The snacks most people enjoy tend to be high in simple
sugars (examples might be dried fruits such as raisins, sweet rolls, candy
bars, pop or caramel corn). Snacking does not need to be completely
omitted. In many situations, snacking is important for good physical
health. This is especially true for young and growing children who need
the calories and nutrients from snacks for proper growth.
Choose snacks that do not harm teeth. Such snacks also
tend to be more nutritious. Good snacks include cheese, yogurt, meats,
plain nuts (not recommended for children younger than school age), peanut
butter, fresh fruits and vegetables, unsweetened breads or cereals, and
Potential of Certain Foods
High Potential for Decay
Diet and Behavior Dilemma,
Clinical Preventive Dentistry Leadership Conference, Dr. Palmer.
Acidic content of foods:
Approximate pH of Foods and Food products
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Nursing Bottle Syndrome
One preventable dental problem that affects young
children is "nursing bottle syndrome." It is characterized by
rapid decay of the primary upper teeth and some of the lower back molars.
The lower front teeth are seldom affected. This condition develops when a
child is given a bottle that contains a carbohydrate liquid or a sweet
pacifier at bed or nap time. While the child is awake and sucking, saliva
flow helps wash sugars away from teeth. As the child falls asleep sucking
and saliva flow decreases, the sugars in the liquid pool around the teeth
and provide an excellent feeding ground for bacteria.
Painful decay results from this practice. If left
untreated, infections and abscesses are possible. Premature loss of upper
teeth may lead to the child developing poor "tongue-thrust."
This could cause poor alignment of permanent teeth and future orthodontic
and speech problems.
All of these problems can be avoided by never allowing a
child to fall asleep with a bottle.
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- Nutrition: Principles and Application in Health
Promotion. Carol West Suitor and Merrily Forbes Hunter, J.B.
Lippincott Co., 1980.
- Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies. Eva
May Nunnelley Hamilton and Eleanor Noss Whitney, West Publishing Co.,
- Diet, Nutrition and Dentistry. Patricia M.
Randolph and Carol I. Dennison, C.V. Mosby Co., 1981.
1 J. Anderson, Colorado State University
Cooperative Extension foods and nutrition specialist and professor; and L.
Brown, former graduate student; food science and human nutrition. 12/92.