USC University of Southern California

Eat Right, Smile Bright

Sharon Faust, assistant professor of clinical dentistry with the USC School of Dentistry, wants everyone to take the old saying, “You are what you eat,” to heart during National Nutrition Month this March.

“If we all pay more attention to what we eat, we would all be a lot healthier,” she said.

Oral health can especially reflect the quality of an individual’s diet, Faust said. Refined starches that stick to the teeth, including those in candy, chips and other snacks, can contribute to tooth decay and periodontal disease. When remnants of food stay in the mouth for long periods of time, harmful bacteria in the mouth have more time to flourish, producing acid that rots teeth and infects oral tissues.

“If you can taste a snack in your mouth or feel it on your teeth for a long period of time after you eat it, that’s bad; bacteria are wreaking havoc the entire time,” Faust said. “This is why certain fad snacks, such as Hot Cheetos, are so devastating for kids.”

Oral pain related to tooth decay is the number one reason that Los Angeles kids miss school, according to school nurses throughout the city, she added. Even when children attend school in spite of the pain, their concentration and learning abilities suffer greatly.

Besides upping the risk for oral health problems, overindulging in nonnutritive, high calorie snacks can also contribute to obesity and related conditions such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. These illnesses can then exacerbate chronic oral infection, and it’s a very harmful feedback loop to be stuck in, said Faust.

Other nutritional problems can also leave their mark on both oral and overall health, especially in growing children. When growing kids don’t receive enough calcium and other essential nutrients, the health and strength of emerging teeth can be adversely affected, and such deficiencies can also result in weaker bones and a shortage of the ions needed for nerve conduction and brain growth, Faust said. She also added that some interesting research is also being conducted on nutrition’s behavioral effects in kids, including hyperactivity.

Good nutrition is critical for good oral health and health in general, but that doesn’t mean it’s complicated, Faust said. Nor does good nutrition require an exorbitant food budget, even in these trying economic times.

“Cooking your own food as much as possible is a great way to both save money and make sure that you’re eating healthfully,” she said. “It’s very inexpensive to buy vegetables and other ingredients at the store, cooking in bulk and saving the leftovers for later. And cooking and eating at home also lets you control your portion sizes more easily than in a restaurant.”

Faust recommends a “colorful” diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and few processed foods. When reading labels, customers should take a look at ingredient lists; if unfamiliar additives and preservatives are listed higher than known ingredients, it may be best to look for alternatives.

Teaching children about nutrition early in their lives is especially important in order to ensure that they make healthy food choices as they grow, Faust added.

“Whatever kids are fed when they are very young, they will grow up thinking ‘This is what we eat’,” she said. “Kids need to learn very early that discretionary processed foods like candy, chips, soda and other snacks are only occasional treats and are not part of a normal balanced diet.”