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Decay in baby teeth may be linked to obesity, poor food choices

A study of young children being treated for decay in their primary teeth showed that 28 percent had a body mass index above the 85th percentile—an indication the child is overweight or obese.

That percentage is more than 5 percent higher than the estimated national average, researchers say. Poor food choices, including sugary drinks and fruit juices, are among the culprits contributing to both obesity and tooth decay in young children.

Dental cavities are already the most common chronic disease of childhood. Five to 10 percent of young children have early childhood cavities, according to Healthy People 2010, and childhood obesity has more than tripled in the past 30 years—reaching nearly 20 percent by 2008.

In the study presented in June at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society, University at Buffalo researchers followed 65 children ages 2-5 at Women and Children’s Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. The severity of dental problems or other issues required the children to be treated in the operating room. Kathleen Bethin, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at the University at Buffalo and director of the pediatric endocrinology and diabetes fellowship at WCHB, led the study.

Following anesthesia, Dr. Bethin’s team measured waist circumference of the children and drew fasting blood. Parents completed a food questionnaire while their children were in surgery.

The data showed that:

  • 18 of 65 children (28 percent) had a BMI above the 85th percentile. That figure might have been higher had the children not been fasting, Dr. Bethin noted.
  • Waist circumference compared to height was significantly higher in the overweight and obese children compared to the children of normal weight.
  • 71 percent of the children had a calorie intake higher than the normal 1,200 per day for their age group.

“We hypothesized that poor nutritional choices may link obesity and dental decay in young children, but there is very little published data associating these two health issues,” said Dr. Bethin. “The aim of our study was to obtain preliminary data on BMI, energy intake and metabolic profiles in young children with tooth decay.

“The main point of our findings is that poor nutrition may link obesity to tooth decay,” she continued. “Thus the dental office, or ‘dental home,’ may be an ideal place to educate families about nutrition and the risks of obesity and dental decay.”

The study found no difference between total calories consumed by the overweight and healthy weight children, Dr. Bethin added. “So the problem isn’t overeating, per se, just making the wrong food choices.”

Many dentists are concerned that their patients are consuming record numbers of sugar-filled sodas, sweetened fruit drinks and non-nutritious snacks that affect their teeth. These items generally have little if any nutritional value and over time they can take a toll on teeth.

Eating patterns and food choices among children and teens are important factors that affect how quickly youngsters may develop tooth decay. People uncertain about whether they’re getting the right nutrients, vitamins and minerals should review the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s website. The USDA oversees the nutritional health of the nation. The agency’s dietary recommendations are designed to promote optimal health and to prevent obesity-related diseases including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and cancers.

In addition to a healthy diet, the American Dental Association recommends that patients limit the number of between-meal snacks (and if snacking, choose nutritious foods that are low in sugar); brush twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste that has the ADA’s Seal of Acceptance; floss or use an interdental cleaner daily to remove plaque from under the gums and between teeth; and schedule regular dental visits for checkups and cleanings. The time to talk to a dentist about a baby’s oral health is when the first tooth appears.

For more information on preventing tooth decay, visit

©2010 American Dental Association. All rights reserved. Reproduction or republication is strictly prohibited without the prior written permission from the American Dental Association.

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