Snacking & Your Oral Health

Snacking may be the new national pastime, with nearly all Americans snacking at least once every day. Nearly half of those snackers do it to relieve boredom or stress, and 40% snack for help staying focused throughout the day. You know who you are. And, yes, I’m a member of Snack Nation, too.

As a dentist, I’m concerned about the effects that snacking can have on our oral and body health. As a snacker myself, I look forward to my munchies. Here are some tips on how to snack healthy!

Healthy Snacking Tip #1: Give your mouth a break

If I start talking about the evils of sugar, most people’s eyes glaze over (yes, pun intended). “Yeah, yeah, doc – sugar causes cavities (not to mention links with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and a host of other health problems). I’ve heard it before, but I need that functional snack boost to combat boredom and stress, and to improve my attention.”

Did you know, though, that the timing of your snacks can be just as important as what you eat? It may be easier to control, too.  Here’s the deal: carbohydrates (sugars and starches) in your snacks are converted to acids by bacteria that live naturally in your mouth.  These acids leech the minerals out of your teeth and cause cavities.  When you give your mouth a break between the sugars and starches, it allows the natural defenses in your saliva to more effectively combat the acids.  Two to three hours between snacks is fantastic and goes a long way toward protecting your teeth.

Healthy Snacking Tip #2: Make nutritious choices

When you do snack, choose foods that offer health benefits beyond a sugar high. Cheese, milk, fruits, leafy greens, and almonds contain high amounts of calcium. Protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and milk are great sources of phosphorus. These minerals are important in many parts of the body, including the natural repair of the early stages of acid damage to teeth. Fruits and vegetables are good choices, too, since they are high in water and fiber. These foods help stimulate saliva, which washes harmful acids and food particles out of the mouth.

Healthy Snacking Tip #3: Avoid sticky situations

Foods that adhere to the teeth don’t make good snacks.  Cookies, chips, and candies, for example, obviously contain large amounts of sugar. These so-called “empty foods” cause a very fleeting energy boost, but offer no nutritional value.  Your health gets a one-two punch because in addition to replacing more valuable nutrition, they also adhere to the teeth and the acids they produce continue to harm teeth long after you stop eating them.  Even dried fruits fall in this category because of their sticky consistency and frequently added sugar. Opt for a piece of fresh fruit instead.

Beverages such as soda, sport drinks, and sweetened coffee and tea cause similar concerns because they bathe the teeth in a sugary liquid. Many people sip these drinks over the course of several hours, which extends the time that the mouth is exposed to the sugar and does not allow the natural defenses present in saliva to counteract the acids. If you are going to drink a soda, just drink it – avoid sipping it.

Healthy Snacking Tip #4: Help children make good choices

Many children I treat have learned, starting at a very young age, snacking habits that place them at great risk for dental disease. Children need parents and other caregivers to help them learn how to make healthy choices.

  • Children like choice. Allow a child to choose among several healthy foods from the 5 food groups.
  • Do not allow a child to “graze” or to have unlimited access to the pantry before they have learned how to select healthy foods. You wouldn’t give your children the car keys before learning to drive safely; don’t give them the “pantry keys” either.  In many families, this means discussing and adhering to a schedule for snacks. (e.g. “Snack time will be when the little hand on the clock is pointing at the 2. You may have a drink of water to tide you over until then.”)  For particularly resourceful or determined children, consider moving snack foods out of reach of the child, placing them in a locked cabinet, or not having sugary/sticky snacks in the house in the first place.
  • Don’t worry if a child doesn’t eat a meal. Children will eat more on some days and less on others. Do not beg a child to eat, fix extra food, or leave dinner on the table to be picked at. When meal time is over, put the food away.
  • Praise with words, not food. These words are the best reward: “I am proud of you!” “You did a good job!” “Thank you!”
  • Discuss your child’s needs and your food and snacking goals with grandparents, daycare providers, and other caregivers. Helping a child learn to make healthy choices is much easier when everyone is following the same plan.

Wishing you Happy and Healthy Snacking!

Michael Cottam
College of Dental Medicine Adjunct Faculty
Roseman University of Health Sciences