When my boys recently had their teeth checked, their dentist warned them that summer is the worst time for cavities. Parental rules relax, allowing more candy and soda into the mix at the same time as brushing slackens.

As much as I hate to admit it, I can see this happening in our household. Does anyone else have a tween boy who thinks brushing and showering are a sprint? He has mastered speed, but effectiveness — not so much. I’m not sure those teeth are being cleaned as they should.

Tooth decay begins with bacteria that naturally live in the mouth. These bacteria burn sugar in order to thrive and during this process convert sugar into acid. The acid then eats away at a tooth’s enamel, which begins the decay and cavity process.

So sugary things such as candy, soda, sports drinks, cakes and ice cream provide fuel for the bacteria, but there is actually a trifecta of criteria that make foods bad for teeth: anything that has sugar or acid or is sticky.

Food-based causes of tooth decay

Sugary foods fuel bacteria. Many children consume sweet or gummy vitamins after they brush their teeth, so the sugar remains on their teeth all morning.

• Sticky foods such as chewy candies, gummies and dried fruits linger on the teeth, giving the bacteria extra occasion to execute damage.

• Long-lasting fare, such as lollipops and cough drops, allows the sugar to dawdle in the mouth for a prolonged period.

Starchy foods such as french fries, white bread and pretzels that easily lodge between teeth are quickly converted to sugar by the pre-digestive saliva.

• Acidic things, such as soda, citrus and tomatoes, eat away the enamel of teeth.

• Chewing on ice can cause tiny fractures in the teeth that over time collect extra bacteria and cause additional breakage.

Eat to support tooth health

My childhood dentist regularly told me that if I was in a pinch, chewing parsley was a “natural” way to brush my teeth. I didn’t buy it back then, but there is truth to his advice, according to the American Dental Association.

• Saliva neutralizes acids, helping to prevent tooth decay. High-fiber vegetables such as celery and parsley take longer to chew, so they stimulate saliva production.

• Some foods neutralize acids, such as pears, apples, yogurt and other dairy.

• Foods that provide calcium and phosphates, such as raw nuts and yogurt, can strengthen the tooth’s surface.

• Crunchy fruits and vegetables such as apples, celery and cucumbers have high water content, which helps dilute the sugar and wash away food particles.

• Drinking water throughout the day will wash teeth and flush bacteria.

• You can minimize acid in foods such as citrus and tomatoes by eating them with other foods.

• Sip sugary drinks through a straw to limit the amount of contact the sugar has with the teeth.

• The foods that damage teeth have been shown to damage overall health, and the foods that are favorable to teeth tend to be favorable to health. No surprise. Just one more reminder of why we should eat well and avoid sugar. Not that any of our kids wanted one more reminder.

Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition education company.

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