Editor's note: This article originally appeared on Poe Center for Health Education's website. The Raleigh-based nonprofit offers a variety of virtual programs for kids, families and adults about healthy living.
For many people, there is nothing like an ice cold soda to “quench” their thirst on a hot day or a hot chocolate to warm you up on a cold evening. When it comes to taking care of our teeth and the rest of our bodies, sometimes we tend to focus on the foods we eat and forget that what we drink is just as important.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that “sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading sources of added sugar in the American diet.” Beverages such as sodas, fruit-flavored juices, sports drinks, and sweetened coffees or tea can also have serious effects on your teeth. Why does it matter? The sugar and acid in many of these types of drinks break down the hard, protective, outer layer of teeth called enamel. When the enamel breaks down, cavities can form. As we celebrate Children’s Dental Health Month in February, let’s talk about three key things to keep in mind when rethinking what you drink for a healthy smile.
You’ve likely heard that water is the best choice for a body healthy. Drinking water helps your teeth for specific reasons. When it comes from a safe source, drinking tap water helps protect your teeth from cavities with a mineral called fluoride. Fluoride can also be found in most toothpaste. Drinking plain water also helps to wash away leftover foods and cavity-causing bacteria left on teeth, leaving your mouth a little cleaner after you eat.
Read the fine print on “healthy” drinks
If eliminating all sugary drinks from your diet is challenging, start small by taking a closer look at the sugars in your favorite sugar-sweetened beverage. Checking the sugar on the nutrition facts label of your drinks can help you when comparing drink options, especially those that claim to be healthy. Even if it’s made with 100% fruit juice, juices and smoothies tend to be higher in sugar and calories when compared to eating the actual fruit. You may be surprised to find that one glass of fruit juice can have almost as much sugar as a glass of soda. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under one should not have fruit juice at all and children ages 7-18 years old should limit juice to eight ounces or one cup a day. For adults, the USDA suggests that sugar makes up no more than 10% of your daily diet or about 12 teaspoons for a 2,000-calorie diet.
Sports drinks are meant to help replenish important fluids lost during intense exercise. Many sports drinks contain vitamins and carbohydrates in the form of sugar. For non-athletes, sports drinks are just another sugary drink. Research has shown that drinking too many of these drinks, especially when not involved with high-intensity exercise, can lead to a higher risk of health problems, including dental cavities. When participating in regular exercise, water is the best choice to stay hydrated and maintain physical endurance.
Cutting out sweet tea or your favorite soda all together can be a challenge, and making a lasting change does not happen overnight. Start with small changes to the drinks you already enjoy. You can add flavor to your drinks without adding all the sugar. Flavoring water with fruits or adding a splash of 100% juice to sparkling water keeps some of the bubbles and flavor you may look for from sodas and juices. Also, try slowly reducing the amount of sugar and flavored creams you add to coffees and teas until you can eliminate them completely. These changes can help make the transition to drinking fewer sugar-sweetened beverages a little easier, while still enjoying what you like.
Remembering these tips as you continue making healthy choices about what to drink does not excuse you from keeping up with your oral-hygiene routine. Brush your teeth at least two times a day for two minutes. Floss at least once a day, and if you are able, visit the dentist for check-ups twice a year. Making healthy choices about what you drink can have lasting benefits not just for your teeth, but for your entire body.