Diet and Dentistry: How Kids’ Eating Habits Can Affect Their Teeth

We are delighted to partner with Dr. Melissa Wages of SW PDX Pediatric Dentistry to bring you this important information in honor of Children's Dental Health Month.

February is Children’s Dental Health Month. It is also National Snack Food Month. This isn’t going well. I have a confession to make. No, I have a couple confessions to make. I am a dentist, and my kids sometimes skip brushing. They also like candy. And sometimes, cavities happen even when we do everything we’re supposed to do for oral health.

There, I said it, now let me explain.

Brushing Isn’t Everything

First off, my own kids don’t brush as often as they should. I still manage to sleep at night. The habit of regular oral hygiene is important, but missing once or twice isn’t the end of the world for oral health. Also, for full disclosure, I regularly remind and check in on them even though they are 13 and 15! Manually removing the thin, sticky layer of plaque everyday is important as this bacterial biofilm is acidic. However, missing the occasional brushing or flossing will not lead to cavities in the short term.

Diet IS Everything

Okay, it is not everything, but it is very important to oral health, specifically to the development of cavities. My kids have crazy sweet tooths and live for Halloween. I once found candy wrappers under my son’s bed, and I think I fainted when I found them. After I regained consciousness, he and I had a little chat about nutrition.

Children who are picky eaters and snack or graze frequently have more cavities than children of parents who describe their children as good eaters. The reason behind this is an acid imbalance in the mouth. Every time any one of us has a bite or sip of any type of food or beverage with carbohydrates (including natural sugars, starches, and milk sugars) our mouth starts to break down the sugar molecules as the first line of digestion. When this happens, our mouth becomes acidic and minerals leach out of our teeth into our saliva. The acid phase lasts about 15 minutes. If, after 10 minutes, the person has another bite, sip, snack, or swallow of a carb, the 15 minute acid phase is extended. However, if the food is ingested during a defined meal or snack period, the mouth will return to a neutral pH and minerals in the saliva with go back into the enamel matrix.

A diet rich in minerals and vitamins is important for this process. Thus, 5-7 defined meal and snack periods in a day with only water in between is optimal for dental oral health. A good rule is to limit candy, juice, or other treats to one of those 5-7 meal/snack times, and never let candy be its own snack.

Dental Problems Happen

I personally know many kids of dental professionals who have cavities. The disease process that leads to cavities is complex and multifactorial. The makeup of the bacteria in the mouth is an important factor, and the specific bacteria that causes cavities has many strains.

The bacteria in a child’s mouth can be transmitted from the parent or caregiver. If a child inherits a very strong strain of the bacteria, cavities can happen early, even before the first birthday. For this reason, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry recommends the first dental visit within six months of the first tooth, or one year, whichever is earlier. This early visit also establishes your child as a patient of record with the dentist. In the case of a toddler who falls onto the mouth or has other oral pain, you have someone to call!

Take Home Points

  • Eat healthy; limiting carbohydrates and acidic foods to defined meal and snack times
  • Brush the acidic biofilm (plaque) off your teeth and floss between your teeth 
  • Take your child to the dentist early and often

So, enjoy February, spring is almost here, and snack fewer times each day (even when there is chocolate involved).

Melissa Wages, DDS is a Pediatric Dentist in SW Portland with over 20 years experience taking care of children’s dental needs. Dr. Wages spent 13 years serving Alaska Native populations in Western Alaska and Kodiak Island before deciding to concentrate on serving babies, children and adolescents solely. Dr. Wages has been an active participant in the SW community where she resides with her husband, their two teenage children and adorable therapy dog/dental office mascot: Nutmeg. To connect with Dr. Wages and SW PDX Pediatric Dentistry, visit



  1. This is a brilliant writeup, thank you Dr. Wages. You’re a genius! Our typical picky eater, grazing son is about to turn 7 and his first major cavity (and talk of a future root canal) is a real wake-up call to this new awareness of the determinants and factors, multivariate as they are. Fortunately, he’s got a good dental team and he’s listening, and taking Behavior Change very seriously. To the point where we have to tell him that he doesn’t have to give up syrup FOREVER on morning waffles, in his oatmeal as a sweetener, and on pancakes, we just have to cut back learn the way to take care of his teeth better and get good results at the dentist. And we evaluate the sugar intake and occurences in the daily eating cycle, just as you say. Great stuff! We appreciate the public health service by your and DDS colleagues! SIncerely, Mr. D and Mrs. K, parents of P

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