Monday, October 5, 2009

Something to chew on

Silhouettes representing healthy, overweight, ...Image via Wikipedia

Excess weight puts children at greater risk of developing teeth, gum problems

Eveline Gan

Obese children are at higher risk of developing gum inflammation.

A CHUBBY kid may look cute, but did you know that excess baby fat may be the culprit behind a child's oral problems?

While it is well known that obesity can cause health problems such as heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, not many parents are aware that the factors leading to excess weight also have serious repercussions on their child's oral health, said dental experts Today spoke to at the Federation Dentaire Internationale (FDI) World Dental Congress last Wednesday.

Hosted by the Singapore Dental Association for the first time in 19 years, the four-day event at Suntec Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre was attended by over 10,000 delegates comprising renowned dentists and researchers.

According to Professor Goran Dahllof, a professor of paediatric dentistry at the department of dentistry at Karolinska Institute in Sweden, obese children and teenagers have a higher risk of developing a host of oral problems, such as tooth decay and gum disease, compared with those of normal weight.

About 3.6 per cent of school-going children in Singapore are obese, according to figures provided by the Ministry of Health.

Said Prof Dahllof: "One of the main links (between obesity and poor oral health) is lifestyle and diet. A diet that promotes obesity is also detrimental to oral health."

Added Dr Rashid Tahir, a dental specialist in paediatric dentistry at The Kids Dentist: "Many parents, especially those in Singapore, tend to think that chubbiness is a sign that their children are well fed, and would often indulge their love of junk food."

Most of the calories that obese young people consume come from fermentable carbohydrates, which increases the risk of tooth decay and cavities, said Prof Dahllof.

Fermentable carbohydrates are found in food such as refined wheat flour, rice and noodles. When consumed, they turn into simple sugars, which are then converted into dental plaque in the mouth. As plaque builds up over time, so does the risk for oral health woes.

"Obese children and teenagers also tend to consume a lot of sugary, carbonated drinks. These acidic drinks can slowly erode the enamel of the teeth, causing it to become thinner and become more prone to chipping off," added Dr Tahir.

Get brushing

On top of controlling their children's diet, parents should also teach them good oral habits when they are young.

"Tooth decay can happen as soon as it erupts from the gums," said Dr Rashid Tahir, a dental specialist in paediatric dentistry at The Kids Dentist.

Make cleaning the mouth a habit even before the baby's first tooth appears, he said.

He recommended that parents clean their baby's mouth and gums with a cloth, and start brushing when teeth start appearing to instil good oral hygiene habits in their child.


Dietary causes aside, Prof Dahllof said that obese people typically store excess fat cells around the abdomen. These cells secrete inflammatory hormones which enter the blood stream and cause problems such as cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.

"The same type of inflammation can also occur in the gums, especially when you already have bacteria in the mouth," he said.

Gum inflammation diseases include a mild form called gingivitis, in which the gums turn red, swell up and bleed easily. If untreated, the inflammation can spread from the gums to the tissue and bone supporting teeth. This loss of support causes teeth to loosen and eventually fall out.

There are no official local figures on obese children with oral health problems, but Dr Tahir estimated that about a quarter of young patients he sees veer on the chubby side.

Most of them suffer from tooth decay and gingivitis.

According to Dr Tahir, children normally start losing their baby teeth at the age of six. By 12, adult teeth will start to appear.

With oral health problems, obese children may start losing their baby teeth at an earlier age, said Dr Tahir, who has seen toddlers as young as one year old with tooth decay.

"The baby teeth are there to 'reserve' space for adult teeth to come in nicely. With early loss of baby teeth, kids will have problems with the alignment of their permanent teeth later on," he said.

For obese children, simply focusing on dental hygiene will not solve their oral health problems, the dental experts said.

"Brushing the teeth without controlling the consumption of sugar isn't going to work. You have to work to control both obesity and dental problems," said Dr Tahir.

From TODAY, Health – Tuesday, 08-Sep-2009