Tooth Decay – How Diet Affects the Dental Health of Children


It’s no secret that diet is closely linked to dental health, particularly when it comes to tooth decay (also known as dental caries). Everything that we eat and drink must pass by our teeth and gums, and food/beverages containing sugar should be enjoyed in moderation as these foods can contribute to the development of tooth decay.  People of all ages are at risk of tooth decay, however children and adolescents are the two age groups with the highest level of risk.  

It is important that children develop healthy eating habits from a young age, as sugar can have a significant impact on their lifelong dentition.

In this blog post, we’ll be sharing some tips to help your child develop healthy eating habits which will support optimal oral health throughout childhood and beyond. A healthy, balanced diet will reduce the risk of tooth decay. We recommend keeping the following in mind:

Choose Tap Water over soft drink/fruit juices, as it is calorie free and contains fluoride for added protection against tooth decay. Not only will regular consumption of water keep your child healthy and hydrated, it also flushes out sugars and acids from the mouth.  Fruit juices are still good for your general health, so it’s okay to have it during meal times.

Many patients have questions about the health of sparkling water, since it contains no additives but does contain carbonation. Sparkling water is actually acidic. A chemical reaction occurs in your mouth that converts the carbon dioxide into carbonic acid, which can wear tooth enamel.

Limit Snacking  kids seem to be hungry all the time, but it’s important to try and limit snacking in between mealtimes to reduce the amount of time your teeth are exposed to acid.    Snacking itself isn’t necessarily the issue; it is what you snack on that can make the difference.  The stickiness of the food and how fast the food is usually consumed are also important considerations.

  • Avoid acidic food– Heavily acidic foods and beverages (e,g, sparkling water, sodas, citrus fruits) tend to drop the pH of the mouth which is corrosive to tooth enamel, putting your mouth at higher risk of tooth decay. Over time prolonged consumption of highly acidic foods and drinks can cause erosion to the point of decay or increased sensitivity.

Alkaline food which are most fresh fruits and vegetables (e.g.  sweet potatoes, grapes, kiwis, cucumbers, papayas) are better as snacks.

  • Limit snacking on fermentable carbohydrates. All carbohydrate foods eventually break down into simple sugars: glucose, fructose, maltose and lactose. Some foods, called fermentable carbohydrates, break down in the mouth, whereas others don’t break down until they move further down the digestive tract. It’s the fermentable carbohydrates that work with bacteria to begin the decay process and eventually destroy teeth. They include the obvious sugary foods, such as cookies, cakes, soft drinks and candy, but they also include less obvious food, such as bread, crackers, bananas and breakfast cereals.

Cavity-causing bacteria in plaque (the sticky film on teeth) feed on the sugars that are released from fermentable carbohydrates and produces acid which erodes tooth enamel.  The longer food stays near the bacteria on the tooth, the more acids will be produced. Fried fruits and crackers are generally stickier than fresh fruit or fresh bread and can therefore  do more acid damage to teeth.  Teeth with a lot of nooks and crannies, such as molars, are more likely to trap food and are more susceptible to decay.

  • Frequency of eating vs quantity

Saliva takes about twenty minutes to neutralize acid in the mouth. When you have sugary foods or drinks many times a day or sip the sugary drink for a long time, acid attacks the enamel repeatedly and your saliva may not get a chance to neutralise the acid, meaning your teeth don’t get a break from the acid attacks. When it comes to teeth, frequency is more important than quantity.  For example, two children both drink 800ml of organic apple juice a day. One drinks the entire 500ml at breakfast. The other sips on his 500ml of apple juice for 5 hours. Just a few sips every 20 minutes. The “sipper’s”  teeth are in contact with the acid produced by bacteria for longer and will be more susceptible to decay.

Try to limit sugary treats to mealtimes, rather than between meals. Studies have shown that those who eat sweets as snacks between meals have higher incidences of decay than those who eat the same amount of sweets with their meals.

(Note: Try not to brush immediately after you eat a snack, in particular after eating an acidic snack, because you risk causing erosion to the tooth enamel since it is in a compromised state)

On the brighter side, some foods actually help to protect teeth from decay!

Some food increase saliva flow and neutralize the acids produced by bacteria, making the enamel less likely to be demineralized. For example,

  • Dairy foods -Research has shown that milk and cheese can help prevent tooth decay. Milk, cheese and yoghurt contain minerals such as calcium, casein and phosphorus that help protect tooth enamel. Casein is a protein found in dairy foods. When combined with calcium and phosphorus, casein creates a protective protein film over the enamel surface of the tooth, reducing the risk of tooth decay. The tooth strengthening minerals, calcium and phosphorus, found in dairy foods, also help repair teeth after acid attacks.

Three serves of dairy foods every day, such as milk, cheese and yogurt, provide important nutrients that your body needs for health and wellbeing. The unique package of nutrients in dairy foods can also help protect against dental decay and erosion.

  • Crunchy snacks like apples, carrots and celery have been recognized as good for teeth because they have a natural scrubbing effect on the teeth and disrupt plaque.
  • Chewing sugar-free gum– Studies have shown that chewing sugar-free gum for 20 minutes after eating can prompt your mouth to produce more saliva, which helps neutralise decay-causing acid attacks. Saliva helps rinse away the acids that bacteria make after eating.

Xylitol, sorbitol, mannitol (basically any of those ingredients that you see that end in -ol), are naturally occurring sugar substitutes that cannot be processed effectively by the bacteria that produce cavities. Sugar alcohols are more natural than chemicals like aspartame, saccharin, or sucralose. To get the most benefit, use it after meals.

Specialist Kids Dentist – Your Partner in Childhood Dental Care

Humans currently consume a significant amount of sugar, and this contributes greatly to the risk of tooth decay. Eating a healthy, balanced diet low in sugar and following dental hygiene advice provided by your dentist will go a long way in reducing your child’s risk. Children should be encouraged to brush twice a day, floss and visit the dentist on a regular basis to ensure great oral health throughout childhood and beyond.

Specialist Kids Dentist are a leading Paediatric Dentist in Liverpool and Summer Hill. Call now on

02 9600 6848 to schedule an appointment, we look forward to seeing you and your child.