They’re eating far too much sugar.
It is a sad state of affairs when the most common reason for the hospitalization of English children between ages 5 and 9 is the removal of decayed teeth. Tooth decay is almost always a preventable problem, and yet it plagues countless children in England, coming at a high financial cost to the National Health Service (NHS) and parents, and an awful physical one to the children themselves.
The Guardian reports that doctors in England extracted multiple teeth a total of 42,911 times in children and teenagers in 2016-17, the equivalent of 170 per day. Each extraction required an aesthetic and included at least two teeth. This is nearly one-fifth more than the number of extractions done in 2012-13.
The problem boils down to too much sugar. Kids are eating far too many sweet foods, made worse by inadequate oral care. Whose fault it is remains a matter of debate.
Parents, obviously, are the ones who control their children’s diets and are not doing enough to ensure that those diets are well-balanced. Claire Stevens, a paediatric dental consultant, described one particularly frustrating parent whose kid subsisted entirely off Ribena (black currant soft drink) and cookies. Someone I know bribes a toddler with chocolate to ‘trick’ her into getting into the car seat, twice a day. And yet, Stevens doesn’t think parents are entirely to blame:
“It is too simplistic, and frankly unhelpful, to apportion all blame to the parents. Yes, as parents we have responsibilities and a vital role to play — but we could all be more proactive when it comes to children’s oral health.” (via The Guardian)
Similarly, Mick Armstrong, chair of the British Dental Association, sees the rate of tooth extractions as being a problem borne by the entire health service. He told the Guardian: “These statistics are a badge of dishonour for health ministers, who have failed to confront a wholly preventable disease.”
Many dentists would like to see tougher regulations on sugar across the nation, such as banning sweetened beverages from vending machines, shuttering fast food restaurants within easy walking distance of schools, and eliminating junk food advertising to children on TV. Subsidized dental care programs for children, similar to those already successfully established in Scotland and Wales, would help.
I wouldn’t be so quick to write off parents’ involvement, however, as they have by far the greatest control over what children eat. I think most parents know it’s not a good idea to give candy to kids on a regular basis (although I’m continually shocked by how often I see it), but there’s also a lot of confusion around which foods pose as healthy but actually are not.
Take raisins and other dried fruit snacks, for example. They are fruit, but they’re excessively sugary and quite unhealthy because of the way they stick to teeth like glue. Fruit juice is another popular offering, sometimes diluted, but it’s unnecessary sugar nonetheless. Even salty snacks like chips contribute to decay by sticking and being difficult to clean off. Most crucial, in my opinion, is the need for healthy variety in children’s diets. Unless a kid is eating plenty of vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and protein to balance out the occasional treat, sugar and refined carbs should never appear on their plates.
Dietary education is desperately needed. Otherwise, we’ll have a generation of young adults with gaping holes in their mouths or fake teeth the likes of which have been previously associated with one’s grandparents. Dental work is uncomfortable and expensive, not the kind of fresh start on life that any parent wishes on their kid.