19 December 2018

Young children of parents who cannot afford to put healthy food on the table are significantly more likely to suffer from tooth decay, according to the findings of a new study.

The research reveals that pre-school children with poor access to fruit, vegetables, fish and other healthy foods are up to three times more likely to have tooth decay by the age of six.1

In the United Kingdom, almost four million children live in households that struggle to provide a balanced diet.  The US-based study found this is more common among younger-parent families and those with lower incomes.

Latest statistics show that one in four (23%) British children have tooth decay by the time they start school.

The Oral Health Foundation, a charity working to reduce inequalities in oral health, is now calling for greater recognition of the threat that food insecurities can cause.

Chief Executive of the Oral Health Foundation, Dr Nigel Carter OBE, says that stronger government intervention is needed to increase the affordability of a balanced diet and improve children’s dental health.

Dr Carter says: “These findings confirm suspicions we have long held. Generally, through no fault of their own, too many parents are struggling to provide consistent levels of healthy, nutritious food for their children. Subsequently, this is having a profound effect upon the health of their teeth.

“This study is also representative of a larger picture of poverty around the country.  Throughout the UK, there are pockets of poverty where health and oral health are much poorer than neighbouring, more affluent areas. This is simply unacceptable. 

“The number of children having five or more portions of fruit and vegetable a day is staggeringly low.  The time has come for government to step up and accept that the rising cost of healthy food is having a disastrous impact on our youngest people.”

Recent figures show less than one in five (18%) UK children are having five or more portions of fruit and vegetables a day. The average number of portions consumed per day is 3.2.

Further findings from the study found that families with lower incomes were more likely to purchase foods with added sugars, including sweets, biscuits and soft drinks. These children also consume more bread and breakfast cereals.

Published in the Journal of Public Health Dentistry, more than a third (35%) of families involved admitted they struggled to provide balanced meals for their children over the last year.

In total, the study also found that more than half (56%) of all families had cases of untreated tooth decay.

“Income restricts a family’s ability to choose healthier alternatives,” adds Dr Carter.

“Government and other public health bodies must unite in searching for effective policies to eliminate the link between income and poor nutrition. It is not enough to tax foods and drinks high in sugar. Healthy foods must also be accessible and affordable for everybody. 

“It is also important that all families have the most basic provisions like toothbrushes and toothpaste, as well as improved access to NHS dental care.”

Tooth decay is the most common chronic disease among children and adolescents and yet is totally preventable.

On average, a five-year old child in England has between three-and-four decayed teeth.

Earlier this year, dentists accused the government of having a ‘short-sighted’ approach to tooth decay after hospital operations to remove children's teeth increased to nearly 43,000.


1. Angelopoulou, M., Shanti, S. and Gonzalez, C. (2018). Association of food insecurity with early childhood caries. Journal of Public Health Dentistry.