It’s that time of year. The haul of Halloween candy kicks it off, and close on its heels are Thanksgiving pies and Christmas cookies. Here’s some surprising advice from a pediatric dentist: Let them stuff their little mouths.
“The frequency of eating candy and other refined carbohydrates, and their stickiness, are big factors in creating the risk of” cavities, says Dr. Mark Helpin in a press release. “Parents can let kids eat a bunch (of candy) now and a bunch later. But don’t let them have one piece now, then an hour later let them have another piece.”
That’s because eating carbohydrates makes the mouth more acidic, which makes it more vulnerable to cavities. And each separate time candy is eaten, it can take an hour for the acidic environment to dissipate. So it may not be a bad idea to let them gorge from that Halloween plastic pumpkin and get it over with. It can be better than doling out a piece now, then another piece an hour later.
While our regular readers know we don’t recommend letting children indulge in candy to their hearts’ content – i.e., “stuff their little mouths” – this story does point out something important about how our food choices and eating habits matter with respect to dental health.
Refined carbohydrates like sugar have a much greater tendency to stick to the tooth enamel than fats and proteins. Oral microbes love this and set about feasting on the sugars. They multiply and colonize as biofilm (plaque). And it’s precisely their metabolic byproducts that create the acidic conditions mentioned above. Ideally, saliva neutralizes the acidity, but when biofilm covers the oral surfaces, it can’t do the job.
Typically, these acidic conditions peak for about 20 to 30 minutes. Thus, a person who habitually eats sugars and refined carbs over an extended period is effectively nursing the problem, ensuring that conditions remain acidic and the biofilm is allowed to proliferate. Together, these greatly increase the risk of cavity formation.
And thus, it makes sense: if you’re going to let your child eat sweets – or eat sweets yourself – do so in one sitting rather than grazing throughout the day. And of course you should brush and floss as soon as possible after eating, to remove any food particles as well as disturb the biofilm and prevent decay.
In fact, even better: brush and floss before eating refined carbs, as well. That way, you’ll break up any biofilm already there that would prevent the saliva from neutralizing the acidic conditions.
That said, we do believe it’s important to minimize the total amount of sugar we eat. For it’s not just about dental and tooth health, but systemic health, as well. Diets high in sugar have been linked to a wide variety of chronic health problems and illnesses. While it may seem unrealistic for many to go without sugar all together – the sweets we eat at holiday times in particular can feed our spirits as well as our bodies – it’s to our benefit to treat sugary foods as just that: a treat, to be had on occasions if desired but not all the time.