Food is the fuel that keeps your body fit and functioning, but what you eat can also contribute to better oral health or act as the fuel that encourages tooth decay. What you put in your mouth affects both your general health and that of your teeth and gums. In fact, if your nutrition is poor, the first signs often show up in your oral health.
Four Things You Should Know about Your Mouth
- The mouth already contains the bacteria that cause tooth decay, but the bacteria can only cause damage after sticking to plaque that accumulates between brushings or on poorly maintained teeth.
- The acids produced by bacteria slowly eat through the hard enamel layer of teeth and enter the softer dentin beneath where decay rapidly spreads.
- When you consume foods and beverages high in sugar and carbohydrates, you’re not only feeding yourself — you’re also feeding the plaque that can cause problems in your mouth.
- Your saliva helps counteract tooth decay by washing away food particles, cleaning your mouth and neutralizing the acids attacking your teeth. A healthy diet can also contribute to a healthy smile.
Dental Defenders: Foods that Can Help Fight Decay
While some foods invite tooth decay, others help combat plaque buildup and help keep teeth and gums healthy. Here are some foods that can help keep your smile sparkling:
- Crisp, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables: Foods with fiber — like apples, carrots and celery — not only help stimulate saliva flow, but also help clean plaque from teeth and freshen breath. Plus, many contain vitamin C (important for healthy gums and quick healing of wounds) and vitamin A (another key nutrient in building tooth enamel).
- Cheese, milk, plain yogurt and other dairy products: The calcium, phosphates and vitamin D in cheese, milk and other dairy products help prevent tooth decay and other problems. Moreover, the calcium in these foods helps protect teeth from acids that cause decay while working to build tooth enamel on the spot. If you don’t normally consume dairy products, try calcium-fortified juice, soy milk or other calcium-rich foods.
- Sugarless chewing gum: While not technically a food, sugar-free gum can help rinse harmful acid off your teeth after meals and snacks. Look for sugarless gum that contains xylitol, which has been shown to help prevent cavities, most likely by inhibiting the growth of certain oral bacteria.
- Green and black teas: Tea contains compounds that interact with plaque and either kill or suppress bacteria, preventing them from growing or producing tooth-attacking acid. This not only helps to prevent cavities, but also reduces inflammation and the chances of developing gum disease. Depending on the type of water you use to brew your tea, a cup of tea can also be a source of fluoride. Just remember: don’t add sugar to your tea.
- Citrus fruit: Although it is acidic, citrus fruit increases saliva flow. In fact, research shows that oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruit tend to protect tooth enamel. Because citrus fruit contains a lot of water, it also helps wash away acid-producing bacteria. But don’t suck on them or keep them in your mouth for a long period of time because the acids in these foods can erode tooth enamel.
- Fish and flax: Omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish, fish oil and flaxseed, are effective anti-inflammatory nutrients. People who consume diets high in Omega-3s are more resistant to inflammation and infection, and this may also translate to resistance to gum disease.
- Water (with fluoride): Water is hands down the best choice for your teeth. In addition to a neutral pH, water helps rinse sugars and acid from the mouth. And if the water is fluoridated that’s even better! Fluoride, a naturally occurring mineral, can help prevent and possibly even reverse tooth decay. Fluoride helps to re-mineralize tooth surfaces and prevents cavities from continuing to form. Bottled drinking water may not contain fluoride, so if this is your main source of water, be sure that you use fluoridated toothpaste and ask your dentist about fluoride supplementation.
Oral Adversaries: Foods to Avoid
You may already have heard that eating sugars and candies aren’t good for your teeth, but here’s the latest on foods to avoid — and some of them may surprise you:
- Sugary candies and sweets: If you eat sweets, go for those that clear out of your mouth quickly. Candies are loaded with sugar, which increases acid levels from bacteria in the mouth. Sticky and gummy candies pose the biggest threat, since they adhere to teeth, making it hard for saliva to wash them away.
- Starchy, refined carbohydrates: Foods such as chips, bread, pasta or crackers can be as harmful to the teeth as candy. Bacteria feed on sugar from starches. And the more refined or cooked a starch, the more likely it is to raise acid levels in the mouth. (Raw starches in vegetables tend not to endanger tooth enamel as much.)
- Carbonated soft drinks and sports drinks: Not only does regular soda contain a high amount of sugar, both regular and diet sodas also contain phosphorous and carbonation, which wear away the enamel on your teeth, causing them to become stained and brown. Many energy drinks, bottled iced teas and lemonades also contain high amounts of sugar and may contain acids that wear away tooth enamel. If you regularly consume soda, use a straw to minimize contact with your teeth.
- Sugary breakfast cereals: Avoid foods that contain a mixture of sugar and starch, such as ready-to-eat breakfast cereal, pastries and many processed foods. The combination of sugar and starch — which turns into sugar — is more likely to get stuck in plaque between teeth.
- Fruit juice: Although fruit is an important part of a healthy diet, acids and sugars in fruit juice can cause problems for your teeth, even more so if they have additional sugar added to them. If you regularly drink fruit juices, use a straw to minimize contact with your teeth.
- Acidic foods: It’s OK to eat acidic foods such as citrus fruits, foods with tomatoes (including pizza, soup and pasta sauce), pickles, honey and wine, but be aware that the acidic juice in these foods can erode the enamel of your teeth. Make sure you don’t eat them too frequently or hold them in your mouth for too long.
So what’s the best advice to prevent cavities and maintain your beautiful smile? Reach for a food that’s less likely to cause tooth decay, and be sure to brush and floss regularly.
The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.