Eating a nutritious and balanced diet is key to staying in shape, but the foods you eat also have a significant effect on the wellbeing of your mouth. The choices you make at mealtimes play a critical role in preventing (or worsening) tooth decay and gum disease. Your mouth is vital not just for eating, but also because it is the initial area that comes into contact with the nutrients your body needs. As many dental professionals can attest, poor nutrition most often manifests itself first in your oral health. Use this article as a refresher to review the basics of nutrition and dental health, or provide a copy for your patients to learn the fundamentals themselves.
Diet and Tooth Decay: Consuming certain types of food and drink can impact the prevalence and severity of tooth decay. Your mouth houses a range of bacteria that help to break down foods and aid in digestion (called probiotics). Other types of bacteria, such as Streptococcus mutans, have a negative impact on oral health by producing enamel-eroding acids. Porphyromonas gingivalis is another damaging bacteria and is linked to periodontitis, which can cause significant dental pain and tooth loss. Sticky and slow-to-dissolve foods exacerbate tooth decay, as do sugary and acidic foods/beverages. Medical conditions such as acid reflux can further weaken your teeth and eating disorders also increase your risk of cavities.
Sugar’s Effect on Dental Health: Bacteria use carbohydrates for fuel. Simple carbohydrates such as sugar are easily fermentable, which means that as the bacteria gain energy from sugar they produce the enamel-eroding acids that cause tooth decay. The US Department of Agriculture reports that the average American consumes approximately 130 lbs. of sugar per year. According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (2010), the top sources of added sugar are soft, energy, fruit, and sports drinks as well as desserts, candy, and ready-to-eat cereals. Limiting the amount of simple carbohydrates in your diet will reduce your cavity risk (and boost your overall health). Read the labels on the food you buy and avoid anything that lists sugar as a core ingredient (as a rule, if an ingredient is listed first, second, or third, it is a primary component). Practice moderation when it comes to any type of sugar (brown, cane, confectioners’/powdered, turbinado, or raw), syrup (corn, malt, or maple), molasses, honey, dextrin, and anything that ends in -ose (maltose, fructose, sucrose, or glucose).
Harmful Foods: Most foods that contain loads of sugar are empty-calorie foods that are easy to spot. Things like candy, cookies, cakes, and muffins have minimal nutritional value and are basically sugar bombs made to rot your teeth. Sugary drinks such as soda, lemonade, juice, and even sweetened tea and coffee are very harmful because they are essentially bathing your teeth in sticky sugar (to help combat this effect, rinse with water after finishing any of these drinks). There are also some nutritious items that can promote tooth decay, however. Acidic fruits and vegetables like citrus and tomatoes can weaken enamel, so it is best to eat these types of produce as part of a meal. Sticky foods like dried fruits are good for you, but because they adhere easily to teeth, they can also have a severe impact on your oral health.
Beneficial Foods: Water is the best beverage when it comes to your teeth. Not only does water contain no ingredients that can increase the breakdown of teeth, but it also flushes out leftover sugars/acids and, if you are drinking fluoridated water, it can actively guard against cavities. Foods that are high in calcium are good for your teeth. These include cheese, milk, yogurt (without a bunch of added sugar), calcium-fortified tofu, leafy greens, and almonds. Meat, poultry, fish, and eggs are great sources of phosphorous. Calcium and phosphorous both promote dental health by protecting and rebuilding teeth enamel. Fruits and vegetables are also good choices because they contain water and fiber, stimulate saliva production, and have vitamin C (which is important for healthy gums and strengthens the body’s immune system) and vitamin A (another nutrient that aids tooth enamel).
Tips to Reduce your Risk of Cavities: The single most important thing that can be done to reduce tooth decay and guard against cavities is to cut down on sugar. Sugar comes in many forms, the obvious ones such as candy and sweet confections as well as the not so obvious ones like breads and fruit drinks. If you can’t go without that sweet taste, replace sugar with substitutes like aspartame, erythritol, saccharin, or sorbitol that will provide the sweetness you’re seeking without promoting tooth decay. Aside from avoiding (or minimizing) sugar, be sure to brush twice a day, limit snacking, and eat a well-balanced diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables in addition to dairy and water.
Dental professionals have a duty and obligation to assist patients with their nutrition. Because patients visit the dental office every six months, dentists and hygienists are in a good position to screen for nutritional deficiencies and identify dietary shortfalls before the patient suffers severe tooth decay. Diet counseling in the dental practice could be as simple as a short chairside chat or as formal as requesting the patient prepare a three-, five-, or seven-day food diary. By explaining the oral risks of a poor diet and promoting good nutrition, dental professionals can help correct behavior and encourage small changes in diet. If necessary, they can also refer a patient to a Registered Dietitian for additional assistance.
Mouthhealthy.org – Nutrition
Diane Vernetti-Callahan, RDH, BS – Nutrition & Oral Health: Eating Well for a Healthy Mouth
Dental Health Foundation – Nutrition & Oral Health
Wendy J. Woudstra – Oral Bacteria: What Lives In Your Mouth?