Most people are well aware of the need to eat a balanced, nutrient-rich diet if they want to enjoy good overall health, but may not realise that what you eat, especially when you are growing up, can affect the development of your jawbone and facial bones, impacting your facial profile. There is considerable evidence to show that today’s modern diet combined with our lifestyle here in the developed world can affect the development of the skull and facial bones, resulting in narrower dental arches, malocclusion and impacted wisdom teeth.

There is a common misconception that the development of our jaws and teeth is genetically predetermined, but genetics isn’t the only factor at play. There is a continual interaction between genetics and the environment, which affects how we grow and develop. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, eating a lot of tough, chewy foods that stimulated their jaws, whereas today’s diet contains much softer foods that are well cooked and often require only minimal chewing. The result seems to be a jaw that is less well-developed, resulting in malocclusion problems. Wisdom teeth often need to be removed because there is insufficient room to accommodate them as they try to erupt.

There have been studies into how soft diets can cause abnormalities in the growth and development of dental arches, resulting in overcrowded teeth and malocclusion. One such study examined hyraxes, a species related to elephants that chew like humans. The study discovered that hyraxes raised on hard food had wider, longer and thicker jaws than hyraxes raised softer to chew foods. Another study focused on younger Australian aborigines whose families had recently started eating modern, more processed foods. Researchers discovered that the younger family members had more problems with tooth overcrowding and had developed smaller jaws than older family members who grew up eating a more traditional and harder-to-chew diet.

The change in diet has affected facial appearance considerably, and over the last few thousand years, human faces have become between 5% and 10% smaller. Additionally, changing the overall facial structure has other implications and can affect how we breathe and chew and oral function.

These changes came about at the beginning of the agricultural revolution when we began to eat a more calorie-dense and softer diet, especially with the introduction of dairy products and cereal grains. Over the past couple of centuries, this change has continued with the introduction of refined sugars and heavily processed foods. Additionally, we now have access to kitchen equipment that can easily soften food by grinding or blending it, and we use knives and forks, so food is cut into small, easy-to-chew pieces. If we are honest, most of us prefer to eat tender meats and food that doesn’t require too much chewing, and we now grow fruits and vegetables that are higher in sugar and which appeal to our tastebuds but are lower in fibre.

There’s not much we can do about this evolutionary process, but if you have children, it’s important to make sure they have regular dental checkups so we can monitor the growth and development of their teeth and jaws. Often problems like narrow dental arches can be corrected with early treatment using dental appliances.