‘You are what you eat’, and to a large extent this also applies to your teeth and gums!
A healthy, balanced diet also has an important role in ensuring your gums stay healthy.
It can, admittedly, be confusing sometimes to know what is good for your teeth and what is bad for them. The aim here is to explain what can harm your teeth and how.
Diet and Tooth Decay
There is a direct and well-established link between your diet and your chances of getting tooth decay.
As soon as you eat certain foods, your teeth are placed under attack. In the case of decay, this attack is not from the food itself but from bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria use the foods for energy and release acid as a by-product. It is this acid that causes tooth decay. This is where the phrase ‘acid-attack’ comes from.
Certain foods will be easier for the bacteria to use and therefore give rise to acid-attack of the teeth.
Simple sugars such as glucose and fructose are the worst. Most people know that such foods e.g. sugar, chocolate, candy, soft drinks and toffee are the main culprits in harming the teeth.
But you may not be aware that some carbohydrates are broken down in the mouth to release sugars. Other carbohydrates are less harmful as they only break down once further down the gut.
Such ‘bad’ carbohydrates, as far as our teeth are concerned, include:
- Breakfast cereals.
Do watch out for ‘hidden’ sugars in foods, especially processed foods. Check the label and you might be surprised at how much sugar there is in some products!
How Does Your Body Naturally Protect your Teeth?
During and after eating, the body releases saliva. Saliva helps protect both the teeth and gums by:
- Clearing away foods and drinks.
- Neutralizing acids in the mouth from food and bacteria.
- ‘Remineralizing’ the teeth that have been attacked by plaque acid. This means the saliva builds up the surface of the tooth again by replacing the lost calcium, fluoride and other chemicals.
‘Remineralization’ is increased and improved by fluoride present in toothpaste, mouthwashes and some foods/drinks.
The level of acid attack quickly rises immediately after eating and then slowly falls afterwards under the effect of the saliva. The mouth needs time to recover after eating. Whether decay sets in or not, and how quickly it may spread if it occurs, will depend on:
- The length of time the mouth is allowed to rest between meals. Eat/snack often and the teeth will be under attack for longer. Eat only at mealtimes, several times a day and the teeth can recover between meals.
- The amount of saliva you produce. More saliva is better. This can be helped with chewing sugar-free gum after eating. Sugar free gum usually also contains Xylitol, which attacks harmful bacteria in the mouth.
- How long the food persists in the mouth. Therefore sticky foods, such as toffee and potato crisps are very bad. Likewise food-traps in the mouth can lead to localized decay very quickly. Rinsing out after meals is helpful in clearing away the food.
So, if you ‘graze’ at food, whereby you are constantly snacking or drinking every hour or so, your teeth will be under acid attack with little chance for the saliva to rebuild the teeth during the day. Your teeth are therefore at high risk of decay. Examples of bad snacking habits between meals:
- A cup of tea or coffee with sugar.
- Sipping on a fizzy drink.
- Taking hours over a snack, e.g. popcorn with a movie.
- Nibbling at a packet of candy during a car-journey.
- Sucking a sweet/candy for long periods.
You can see the pattern! It is not the amount of harmful food/drink you consume but the frequency of such that does the real harm! So the occasional sweet food/drink is OK.
If you must eat something sugary, this is best done immediately after meal-times and then rinse out your mouth.
“Any Foods That are Good for my Teeth?”
Some foodstuffs do help by either neutralizing acids in the mouth or by being naturally high in fluoride. Such drinks and foods that are good for your teeth include:
- Tea (without sugar!).
“What Should I Eat for Healthy Teeth?”
A balanced healthy tooth-kind diet will include:
- Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Fish, grains and nuts.
- Lots of water.
- Wholegrain foods such as brown rice, oats and whole-meal breads are better than refined grain foods such as white bread and rice.
- Some dairy products such as milk and cheese.
- Limit saturated fats.
- Limit alcohol consumption.
- Limit salt and sugar intake. Beware of hidden salts/sugars in many processed foods.
- Limited snacking between meals.
Snacking and Your Teeth: The Perils
As explained, regular snacking between meals is harmful to the teeth as the teeth are exposed to plaque acids for longer. Therefore regular snacking should be avoided. If you must snack follow this advice to reduce damage to the teeth:
- Rinse out with water and/or chew sugar-free gum after snacking.
- Try to avoid harmful snacks such as sugary foods, ‘bad’ carbs and sticky foods.
- Avoid frequently taking sugary tea and coffee.
- Try ‘good’ snacks such as cheese.
The table below gives a guide to snacks.
|Tooth-healthy snacks||Next-best||Tooth-decaying snacks.|
A note on sweet drinks:
To limit the damage these can do to teeth:
- Drink them quickly rather than sipping at them for a long time.
- A straw can help bypass the teeth.
- Soft drinks are less acidic if they are chilled.
- Try diluting fruit juices with water.
An important tip: DO NOT brush your teeth immediately after eating/drinking. Doing this will help wear-down the teeth, as you will be brushing the teeth while they are soft from acid-attack. Instead rinse out the mouth and wait half an hour before brushing.
Diet and Dental Erosion
Dental erosion is wearing away of the teeth from acids. This acid can come from the diet or from the stomach.
Some of the worst offenders from the diet are:
- Red wine.
- Grapefruit juice.
- Orange juice.
- ‘Diet’ drinks such as sugar-free cola.
How do you prevent erosion?
- Reduce the amount of these acidic food and drinks you consume. Also limit them to mealtimes only, to reduce the amount of time that your teeth are under acid attack.
- If taking acidic drinks, best to drink them quickly, again to limit the time your teeth are under attack. Don’t whirl the drink around your mouth. The use of a straw can help keep the acid away from the teeth better.
- After taking an acid food or drink, drinking milk, water or rinsing your mouth out with water or a fluoride mouthwash can help clear up the acid quicker.
- Chewing sugar-free gum after eating can have a similar effect, by increasing saliva flow which helps neutralize acids.
- Do not brush your teeth immediately after taking acidic foods or drinks. Wait at least an hour, otherwise you will be increasing tooth damage by brushing softened teeth.
- Brush your teeth gently twice a day using a fluoride toothpaste. Some new formulations of toothpaste are available for dental erosion. However these are not a ‘miracle’ cure to erosion.
Diet and Your Gums
Not only does your diet affect your teeth, it can also play a role in the health of your gums.
A diet rich in vitamins and minerals can help the body’s immune system to fight off gum disease. On the other hand, a deficiency in some vitamins can lead to gum problems.
Healthy Diet…Healthy Teeth: Summary
What you eat and drink can have a huge bearing on the health of your teeth and gums. Equally, how often you eat or drink and what you consume for snacks between meals is very important. Follow the above advice to ensure healthy teeth for life!