Editor's note: February is National Children's Dental Health Month. This is part one of a four part series on oral health. Dr. (Capt.) Breck Brewer is an active-duty dentist and preventive dentistry officer for Fort Polk's Dental Activity.

You all know the importance of a balanced diet. Pictures of the food pyramid are familiar -- it outlines how many servings of grains, fruits, vegetables, meats and dairy people need in a given day. Many folks scrutinize what goes into their bodies, reading nutritional labels with a magnifying glass. Is the same done for children' Perhaps even more important than adult efforts to choose appropriate foods is the responsibility to ensure that children's diet is balanced. What children eat and when they eat it affects not only their general health but also their oral health.

Today's parents face challenges when it comes to choosing foods for their family. Now more than ever, a food consumer's choices are staggering. From fast foods to organic meals, snack foods to fresh produce, there are constant decisions to make about the food people put into their mouths. More often than not, it's the non-nutritional foods that are conveniently packed and cheaper. Plus, the marketing firms of America have figured it out. Dress up the food packaging with bright colors or a child's favorite TV star and the pressure for a parent to buy grows exponentially. Besides, kids know what tastes good.

Generally, the first two ingredients in anything a child picks out for themselves is corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, code words for sugar. Parents need to remember that as consumers they have the ultimate say in what their children are eating.
When it comes to avoiding cavities, there may be something even more important to avoid than those sugar-laden convenience foods: the sugar-laden beverages. The average teenage boy in the U.S. consumes 81 gallons of soft drinks each year. That's almost three two-liter bottles each week!

Sugar alone cannot cause cavities. It's only when bacteria break down the sugar into acid that the teeth start to corrode or demineralize. Typical soft drinks are high in both acidity and sugar content and become a double-edged sword.

Perhaps you are one of the parents that do not allow your children to drink soft drinks. You're not off the hook yet. Many sports drinks (like Gatorade) and juices contain just as much sugar and acid as those soft drinks and can be disguised as good sources of nourishment.

While the type and quantity of sugar children consume makes up a big piece of the puzzle, the last variable is how often these "sugar exposures" occur. Even if the overall consumption is low in volume, a child who frequently sips on sugary drinks or eats starchy snacks has an even greater risk of cavities. This "grazing" habit can have an adverse effect on oral health.

The American Dental Association recommends the following hints to reduce your children's risk of tooth decay:
Aca,!Ac Sugary foods and drinks should be consumed with meals. Saliva production increases during meals and helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.
Aca,!Ac Limit between-meal snacks. If kids crave a snack, offer them nutritious foods.
Aca,!Ac If your kids chew gum, make it sugarless. Chewing sugarless gum after eating can increase saliva flow and help wash out food and decay-producing acid.
Aca,!Ac Monitor beverage consumption. Instead of soft drinks, sports drinks and juice all day, children should also choose water and low-fat milk.
Aca,!Ac Help your children develop good brushing and flossing habits.
Aca,!Ac Schedule regular dental visits.

Let's face it, children are going to eat and drink sugar. The questions remain how much sugar, what types of sugar, how often the sugar exposures occur and are children getting the nutritious foods they need' Remember the sugar category is the top of the pyramid, the smallest section. Parents, it's up to you to lay the foundation now for a lifetime of healthy eating habits and proper oral health.