I confess: I've got a mouthful of cavities. I blame it on my lifelong sweet tooth, less-than-stellar dental habits as a kid, and bad luck in the genes department (my mom's got a mouthful of metal too).
I'm determined that things will be different with my kids—though the statistics aren't good. "Six out of ten U.S. children will have tooth decay by the time they go to kindergarten," says Jade Miller, DDS, president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Brushing and flossing obviously play huge roles in dental health—but did you know that the foods and drinks your child consumes every day also have a big impact on her pearly whites? I asked Dr. Miller for the most common cavity culprits. Some of these may surprise you!
Sticky and sugary candy literally clings to the teeth. Though gummy fruit snacks are sometimes mistaken for a healthy snack, the ingredient list reads more like gummy bears—and they're sticky and sweet like candy too. If your child can't brush after eating these sticky foods, rinsing and swishing with water will help a little. But pieces can stay between teeth or trapped in the grooves of teeth for several hours, warns Dr. Miller.
Both regular and diet soda is bad for teeth. That's because soda is acidic, so it can actually weaken tooth structure, says Dr. Miller. Most soda has a pH level between 2-3—which is closer to battery acid than to water! Though sports drinks aren't fizzy, they're also highly acidic at a pH of 2.9. Keep in mind: If your child is going to have soda or sports drinks, it's better to consume it at one time instead of sipping for longer periods of time, since repeated exposure to sugar and acids ups the risk of cavities even more. Better yet, stick to water.
They're not usually sweet, but carb-rich crackers can also promote tooth decay. That's because foods like crackers and cereal start breaking down in the mouth, where bacteria use the sugars to produce acid that can dissolve tooth enamel. Those acids stick around as long as a half hour after the food has been eaten. And the risk for this kind of acid damage is higher if kids nibble on these foods throughout the day (hello, toddlers!).
Some better news: Certain foods are actually good for teeth. "Apples are fibrous and act like natural tooth cleaners," says Dr. Miller. Cheese has anti-cavity properties too, helping to neutralize some of the acid made by bacteria (plus, it contains calcium to help remineralize teeth). And flossing becomes important as soon as your child has teeth without spaces between them. Finally, Dr. Miller urges parents to take their kids to the dentist early, ideally by age 1. "Begin with preventing dental problems rather then waiting until they require treatment," he says.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.