Dental Health: The nutrition connection
Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD
February is Children’s Dental Health Month. Many dietitians may not immediately think about the connection between dental health and nutrition, but the connection is a natural one. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, dental caries (cavities) is the number one chronic disease affecting young children today.1 Poor oral health has been linked to other chronic diseases including heart disease.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has a position paper on this topic, which encourages dietitians to incorporate oral health into his or her practice.2 According to the position paper, there are four components to the prevention of dental caries: diet counseling, fluoride therapy, the use of sealants (to protect teeth surfaces), and controlling bacteria that cause cavities.2
Good oral hygiene is obviously a primary protective behavior for parents and children. Even infants need to have their mouth and teeth cleaned to help keep emerging and early teeth cavity free. The registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) should encourage and reinforce parents to begin early oral hygiene regimen, including brushing teeth, flossing, and visiting the dentist (AAP recommends the first visit by 1 year of age1).
Socioeconomics also impacts dental health for children for a multitude of reasons. Access to dental healthcare can be limited by financial constraints and my limit regular visits to the dentist for regular care. In addition, food insecurity can lead to a poor diet, low in nutrients and protein and high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, which may result in poorer dental health.
Having a healthy, nutrient-rich diet can help assure healthy teeth and gums. Adequate vitamin and mineral intake results in stronger teeth and tooth enamel. Moreover, a diet that is lower in sugar and which avoids sugar-sweetened beverages, reduces risk for cavities. Snacking between meals can also increase the risk for the development of cavities. In infants, being allowed to fall asleep with a bottle filled with milk or formula can lead to increased cavities (and may be a choking hazard).
Eating disorders are the third most common chronic disease in adolescent girls.2 Restrictive behaviors, binge eating, and purging all may impact oral health and result in weaker enamel and increased risk for cavities.
Other contributing factors may include oral and cranial malformations and health conditions such as diabetes mellitus, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), cancer, overweight/obesity, and the treatments for these conditions. 2 Children with mental or behavioral issues may also be at risk for cavities due to the difficulty in caring for their teeth. In addition, some medications or supplements can cause conditions that make cavities more likely, such as dry mouth. 2 It is important to counsel pediatric patients and their parents about the potential impact of these conditions and medications on oral health.
RDNs should consider ways to partner with dentists in their community to broaden opportunities for patient education. During Children’s Dental Health Month, consider how you can find ways to support your patients and clients in maintaining good oral health and in having healthy teeth throughout their lifespan.
— Sherry Coleman Collins, MS, RDN, LD, is president of Southern Fried Nutrition Services specializing in food allergies and sensitivities, digestive disorders, and nutrition communications.
1. Children’s Oral Health. American Academy of Pediatrics Website. http://www2.aap.org/commpeds/dochs/oralhealth/index.html. Accessed January 18, 2016.
2. Tougher-Decker R, Mobley C. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Oral Health and Nutrition. J Am Diet Assn. 2007;107:1418-1428.