The Importance of a Good Diet
Not only does a nutritious, well-balanced diet provide a child with the nutrients he/she needs to grow, it supplies the necessary vitamins for healthy gum tissue development, strong bones and teeth, and protection against certain illnesses.
How does my child’s diet affect his or her teeth?
A common misconception is that candy, chocolate, and desserts are the only source of sugar in your diet. However, almost every processed (pre-packaged) snack, including granola/energy bars, fish-shaped crackers, yogurt-in-a-tube, and dried fruits, contain at least one type of sugar. When these snacks are eaten, the sugar attracts oral bacteria, which then produce acids.
When tooth enamel is constantly exposed to acid, it begins to erode – the result is childhood tooth decay. If tooth decay is left untreated for prolonged periods, acids begin to attack the soft tissue (gums) and even the underlying jawbone. Eventually, the teeth become prematurely loose or fall out, causing problems for emerging adult teeth – a condition known as childhood periodontal disease.
How can I help my child eat healthy?
This is a great question and a common concern among parents and caregivers. Here are a few tips:
1. Avoid placing too tight of restrictions on food
Too tightly restricting food or eliminating a food altogether can make the food more attractive to children because it has that mysterious "forbidden" quality. And, according to experts, restricting food may increase your child's risk of developing an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia later in life. Instead of banning foods, talk with your child about all the healthy, yummy options there are -- encouraging him/her to chose fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy.
2. Children will eat what is available
Keep fruit in a bowl on the counter, not buried in the crisper section of your fridge. Chop carrots, celery, broccoli, and bell peppers into snack-size pieces, store in a kid-friendly container, and place in an kid-accessible spot in the fridge along with hummus for dipping. Whole grain crackers and cheese slices are a great option, too. Remember, your child can only choose foods that you stock in the house. And, set a good example by eating these same healthy foods and snacks. Your actions will speak louder than words.
3. Don't label foods as "good" or "bad"
Try to connect healthy foods to the things your child cares about, such as sports or doing well in school. Let your child know that lean protein, such as turkey, and the calcium in dairy products give them energy and strength for sports and school activities. The antioxidants in fruits and vegetables lower his/her risk for infections, keeping them healthier, and thus allowing them to attend school, engage in school activities, and spend time with friends. And, eating a healthy breakfast can help them keep focused in class.
4. Praise healthy choices
Give your child a proud smile and praise when he/she chooses healthy foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, or low-fat dairy.
5. Try to redirect
When your child chooses an unhealthy food, suggest a healthier option:
- Instead of regular potato chips and dip, offer baked tortilla chips and salsa.
- If your child wants candy, try dipping fresh fruit in a little chocolate sauce.
- Instead of buying French fries, try roasting cut up potatoes in the oven (tossed in just a bit of oil and salt).
6. Avoid using food as a reward
This can cause your child to believe that he/she should be rewarded with food or sweets any time he/she does the right thing, which can lead to a habit of overeating. As adults, we know how hard habits can be to break, especially those created during childhood. Instead, reward your child with something physical and fun -- perhaps a trip to the park or a quick game of catch.
7. Sit down together for family dinners
We are parents, too, and fully realize how busy life can be. However, if this isn't a tradition in your home, we really recommend trying to sit down for dinner together several nights per week. Research shows that children who eat dinners at the table with their parents have better nutrition and less behavioral issues. We recommend starting with one night a week, and then work up to three or four, gradually building the habit.
8. Prepare plates in the kitchen
You can put the right portion of each item on everyone's plate, instead of offering a buffet or serve-yourself style. This helps your child learn to recognize healthy portion sizes. If adjusting to healthier portion sizes means smaller portions for your family, help make the switch seem less shocking by using smaller plates.
9. Give your child some control
Take your child grocery shopping (or let them help make the grocery list) and give them an opportunity to choose between healthy foods. For example, you could ask your child, "Would you rather have carrots or green beans for dinner?" "Apples and oranges are on sale: which would you rather have?" This lets your children participate in decision making and makes their opinions seem important and acknowledged.
10. Try, Try, and Try Again
If you are serving a food that your child has not tried before or claims to dislike, place 1-3 small bites of the food on the plate as their "serving." Encourage your child to eat the small serving by saying something like, "This is easy—you could be done in a second." Even if your child makes a face after trying the food and claims to dislike it, praise your child for trying (and finishing) the food, letting him/her know you are proud that they tried it and ate it. Keep introducing new, healthy foods and providing your child with opportunities to re-try ones they claimed to dislike. Although it may seem daunting and might take a child 15 tries to learn to like a food, research suggests that it might actually be as few as six times.
However, parents should also ensure that children are not continuously snacking – even in a healthy manner. Lots of snacking means that sugars (even those in healthy foods) are constantly attaching themselves to teeth, and tooth enamel is constantly under attack. It is also impractical to try to clean the teeth after every snack, if snacking occurs every ten minutes!
As a final note, avoid feeding your child sticky foods and gummy vitamins. It is incredibly difficult to remove stickiness from the teeth. We recommend children's chewable vitamin tablets - be sure to read the directions on the bottle for the correct dosage. Consult your pediatrician if you are unsure of the proper dose.
If you have questions or concerns about your child’s general or oral health, please contact our office at 517-393-8500.
Day Family Dental
Dr. Nathan Day, DMD • Dentist • Lansing, MI