A nutritious and balanced diet is as important to your teeth and gums as it is to the rest of your body. Your eating habits can contribute to either the development or the prevention of tooth decay.
The evolution of our diet
Have you ever wondered how humans managed to care for their teeth before toothpastes, toothbrushes, and dentists? Far from walking around with toothless grins, the evidence we have available actually indicates that these people were in excellent health, and their mouths were almost entirely free of dental disease.
The need for dentists came a lot later when we switched away from the balanced natural diets human beings ate for thousands of years. Our ancient diet included all of the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals needed to prevent most degenerative diseases. Our modern diet, complete with refined, processed, preserved, and over-cooked foods, has brought us gum disease and tooth decay.
While it’s not practical to live exactly as our ancestors did, we can pay more attention to what we eat.
How diet affects dental health
A diet that is low in certain nutrients will increase your risk of periodontal disease (gum disease) and tooth decay, and a healthy immune system is essential to controlling dental disease.
General guidelines for diet and oral health
First, be careful to eat balanced meals every day, paying attention to the food groups and emphasizing whole foods. Between meals, the best snacks for your teeth are raw vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, cold meats, peanuts, pickles, olives, and any kind of cheese or milk product. Many of these foods actually help to clean your teeth and stimulate and massage your gums. When you choose to eat sweets, have them with a meal instead of as a snack, and brush and floss afterwards.
Vitamins and minerals that benefit oral health
- Calcium. Your teeth and jaws are primarily made of calcium, and without enough calcium in your diet, you risk developing gum disease and tooth decay. Get calcium in your diet from milk, yogurt, cheese, beans, and oysters.
- Iron. An iron deficiency can cause an inflamed tongue and sores inside your mouth. Find iron red meat, bran cereals, some nuts, and spices.
- Vitamin B3 (niacin). A lack of vitamin B3 can cause bad breath and canker sores. Chicken and fish are excellent sources of niacin.
- Vitamins B12 and B2 (riboflavin). A lack of riboflavin will causes similar issues as lack of niacin. Red meat, chicken, liver, pork, fish, as well as dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese, are good sources of vitamin B12, and vitamin B2 is found in foods like pasta, bagels, spinach, and almonds.
- Vitamin C. Too little vitamin C will lead to bleeding gums and loose teeth. Sweet potatoes, raw red peppers, and oranges are some great sources of vitamin C.
- Vitamin D. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. A diet lacking or low in vitamin D can also cause a burning mouth sensation, a metallic or bitter taste in the mouth, and dry mouth. Milk, egg yolks, and fish are some good sources of vitamin D.
The effects of sugar on tooth enamel and dental health
Too much sugar in our diets can lead to many health problems, and it’s also a major cause of tooth decay. When chewed, sugary foods react with bacteria on your teeth to produce an acid that destroys tooth enamel. These acid attacks last up to 30 minutes – enough time to do serious damage to your teeth.
In order to maintain strong, healthy teeth, it’s key to curb your intake of sugary drinks, desserts, and snacks, and opt for foods that are naturally sweet and nutritious instead.
How sugars and sweets affect your teeth
Sticky sweets such as cookies and candy will become lodged in the grooves of your back teeth, making these areas at higher risk for cavities. Liquid sugars such as pop, juice, and coffee with sugar added tend to be responsible for decay on the smooth outside and inside surfaces of teeth – these types of cavities often start at the gumline near the root of a tooth.
After a sugar is consumed, sticky or liquid, the acidity in the mouth remains high for about 30 minutes. It is during this time that plaque bacteria are most active in converting sugar to the acid that damages your tooth enamel. After this 30-minute period, the saliva in your mouth has cleared out much of the sugar, and the activity of the bacteria is greatly reduced. If another sugar is introduced, the process restarts. This is why continuously sipping sugary drinks like pop or sugared coffee throughout the day is so harmful to your teeth. For the same reason, is very hard on your teeth when you consume hard candies or cough drops, which stay in your mouth for a long period of time.
Added sugars, processed foods, and rising consumption
Most of us are aware of the ill effects that refined sugars have on our teeth, but many people are less aware of the hidden and added sugars in processed foods, and how those sugars are causing sugar consumption to rise at a remarkable rate. The health problems with sugar are not just the sugar we spoon into coffee or cereal ourselves, or even the sweet treats that we know to be sugary and try to eat less often. The bigger threat is hidden sugars that are already in most processed foods. Foods like breakfast cereals, canned soups and sauces, and frozen foods are loaded with it, and many foods that sound healthy are actually full of processed sugar. For example, a “low-fat muffin” can have the equivalent of 7.5 teaspoons of sugar, which represents about 75% of the recommended daily sugar intake for an adult. There is some scientific debate surrounding just how sugar content in food is measured, but no one denies that our sugar consumption as a society is rising rapidly. The rampant consumption of soft drinks, sports drinks, and fruit drinks is one major factor for this rise.
And finally, ask your pharmacist if the medicine your family is taking has sugar in it! If it does, rinse well with water afterwards.
Tips for reducing the amount of sugar you eat
We recommend trying to limit your sugar intake to 10 teaspoons or 50 ml per day. To really manage your sugar intake, it’s important to read the nutrition labels on any processed or packaged foods you buy. Ingredients ending in “ose” like fructose are sugars. Even salad dressings and ketchup often contain an excess of sugar – but the good news is that there are beginning to be a lot more low-sugar options available! Read and compare labels to make better choices for your health. A simple way to make healthy grocery shopping easy is to focus your time on the outer ring of the supermarket, where whole, fresh foods tend to be kept, and try to avoid the aisles, where processed, packaged foods tend to be found.
Over time, you can curb your cravings for traditional sweets and sweetened foods. Start by swapping out cookies and cakes you might normally reach for with tea biscuits or plain cookies. Experiment with recipes you make often by gradually reducing the amount of sugar you add – most foods can take up to a 75% reduction in sugar! Try eating fruit for dessert or snacks, but go easy on dried fruits which are high in calories. Buy plain yogurt and add fresh fruit yourself instead of buying yogurt with fruit – and lots of sugar! – already added. Cereal is a major culprit for huge amounts of added sugar, so buy unsweetened cereal and add fruit slices. Avoid buying sweets as snacks for your kids.
Remember that the main reason we need to eat is to supply our bodies with fuel for energy. Sugary snacks and refined, processed foods are generally low in nutrients, high in calories, and don’t really satisfy our hunger or give our bodies (and our teeth) what we really need. When you do choose to eat or drink sugary foods or beverages, have them with a meal rather than on their own, and brush and floss your teeth afterward.
Other harmful foods and habits for your dental health
While sugar usually gets the most attention, it isn’t the other food that can be hard on your teeth! Starchy foods like potato chips, crackers, and breads can also be damaging to your teeth, because the starches are broken down by saliva into maltose. When maltose – a sugar – comes into contact with plaque, it turns into an acid powerful enough to dissolve the hard enamel protecting your teeth, and this makes your teeth vulnerable to cavities.
Sticky or chewy foods that cling to tooth surfaces can also be bad for your teeth, and you should brush and floss carefully after eating these types of food. All-day snacking, even when not eating candy, can cause dental disease. Snacking on cheese, crunchy fruits and vegetables, lean meat and fish, and low-fat dairy products can help keep your mouth healthy, and you can reduce the acidity of the saliva on your teeth by rinsing your mouth with water or eating a piece of cheese after eating.
Together, a balanced diet, daily use of fluoride, effective brushing, and sensible eating habits can reduce the risk of or even prevent infectious dental disease.