Nutrition and facial development

When I was a freshman in high school, I had these tiny little ramp-like structures fused to the back of my upper incisors so that my overbite wouldn’t interfere with my bottom braces. I called them “rabbit teeth”, because that’s what they resembled: prominent, cartoon-like rabbit teeth. They were so embarrassing, though I was lucky I didn’t need to contend with headgear or what I’m about to share next.

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

A friend recently described her son’s orthodontia as a “medieval torture device.”  Every night, she has to insert a key into the expander across the roof of his mouth and crank it multiple times in an effort to widen the canal. He’s also endured multiple tooth extractions, multiple phases of metal braces, a retainer, and his parents have forked over thousands of dollars for these treatments. 

I’m forking over thousands of dollars too, for my oldest daughter’s orthodontia. About every six weeks, we haul over for adjustments. Currently, she’s in the rubber band phase. Tiny little bands hook diagonally onto her braces in order to train her jaw into proper positioning. 

Though my own orthodontic care wrapped up about two decades ago, I’ve discovered these hilarious facial exercises– face yoga– regimens marketed at those of us who aren’t pleased with our face sculpture. 

Torture devices, face toning, what have you, these interventions have come to rise in modern times to address our changing faces and it’s not just vanity at stake. Jaw and other facial development, dental occlusion, tooth spacing have all been affected by how and what we eat and they have real effects on our overall health and function. 

“…The problem we face is that we have entered a space age world with Stone Age genes—genes that evolved to produce jaws adapted to a hunter-gatherer diet. Today’s jaws epidemic is concealed behind the commonplace. Its most obvious symptoms are oral and facial: crooked teeth (and the accompanying very common use of braces), receding jaws, a smile that shows lots of gums, mouth breathing, and interrupted breathing during sleep…” Sandra Kahn and Paul R. Ehrlich write in Why Cavemen Needed No Braces.  

The authors go on to explain: “The epidemic’s roots lie in cultural shifts in important daily actions we seldom think about; things like chewing, breathing, or the position of our jaws at rest, and these changes have in turn been brought about by much bigger sociohistorical developments—namely, industrialization.”

Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash

More specifically, Americans’ diets have become saturated by ultra processed foods (UPFs). According to the documentary Food Inc. 2, on average, UPFs make up 58 percent of Americans’ total energy intake, compared to 17 percent in Italy. 

While we might think of UPFs contributing to things like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, Daniel E Lieberman, et al conclude in Effects of food processing on masticatory strain and craniofacial growth in a retrognathic face that “…food processing techniques have led to decreased facial growth in the mandibular and maxillary arches in recent human populations.” This shifting development of our facial structures comes with its own set of health concerns.

 Weston A. Price delves into the relationship between diet, the development of teeth and bones and overall health in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration.  

Starting in utero, researchers have suggested that the amount of protein consumed by pregnant women can impact the facial development of their offspring. 

It is well established that infant feeding and the introduction of complementary foods impacts facial development.

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

“Breastfeeding is not mere nutrition and can be considered as a natural orthopedic appliance for the harmonious development of face,” as the authors of Validation of Association between Breastfeeding Duration, Facial Profile, Occlusion, and Spacing: A Cross-sectional Study put it. 

In Relationship between Nutrition and Development of the Jaws in Children, a small pilot study, the authors reference a study conducted in Beijing by Chen, et al that “revealed that children who either did not receive breastfeeding or breastfed for less than six months were more susceptible to subsequent crossbite, which is directly linked to the position of the terminal plane.” 

The authors also write that “initiating [complementary] feeding with solid foods [as opposed to porridges] may lead to a lower tendency for crowding. Primate spaces and interincisive diastemas are considered essential and important as they facilitate the proper alignment of permanent teeth by occupying the necessary space for a harmonious occlusion.” 

Alas, the packet apocalypse is upon us. The convenience of “ready-to-feed-super-glops and slops” have largely replaced the art of dining and sharing meals and chewing our food. Stocked shelves offer an overwhelming array of mostly highly processed snacks and meals in a pouch that generally lack texture diversity.

Photo by Derek Owens on Unsplash

Yvonne Luxford’s Was the Tooth Fairy Breast Fed? The Politics of Infant Tooth Decay is a fascinating doctoral thesis that teases out the flaws in 1970s research that linked breastfeeding to tooth decay (and has stuck around in many spaces.) 

In one section, Luxford cites Babu Jose and Nigel M King’s research which found that “the  [addition of sugar in local snack food preparations and the increasing frequency of snacking] may have been a factor that has affected data from other studies where breast-feeding was high; in other words, this may serve as a warning to communities that the good practice of breast-feeding may be counteracted by adverse factors that are not reported by caregivers, and these factors may be cultural or social in nature.” 

This bit nods to snack culture and industry influence where multinational corporations work to influence infants’ and young children’s diets in order to increase their profits.    

During this research, I came across a device shaped like a mouthguard intended to promote chewing. How incredibly bizarre, I thought. When I shared the device with one of my mentors, she pointed out that humans who are tube fed or those living with other medical complexities might benefit from a device like this, but for those of us who can chew regular, whole foods… we both cocked our heads– our heads formed with great influence by the foods we eat– in bewilderment at this silicone product. 


Further reading 

Global human mandibular variation reflects differences in agricultural and hunter-gatherer subsistence strategies

Malocclusion: Disease of Civilization

Ultra-Processed People

Evolution of Diet 

How the Western Diet Has Changed the Human Face

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.