Brushing Up on Oral Health
When it comes to dental health, you can't simply brush away a diet of poor food choices. That's because when you eat, "you’re not just feeding yourself — you’re feeding all the good and bad bacteria that live in your mouth,” says Mark Wolff, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. A 2017 study published in the journal Nutrients, for instance, found that — all other factors being equal — older adults who ate plenty of fruits and veggies had better oral health than those who didn’t.
“This type of eating pattern, which is low in sugar but high in fiber, is a major factor to help prevent cavities and keep teeth and gums strong and healthy,” Wolff says. The American Dental Association recommends following the MyPlate guidelines from the Department of Agriculture, which means fruits and veggies should make up half of all your meals, with the other half consisting of whole grains, low-fat dairy and lean protein.
Here, a few specific foods that experts and research say you should work into your regular rotation for a healthier smile.
1. Tap water
H20 should be your beverage of choice as much as possible, though you should avoid the bottled variety, as most don’t contain fluoride. “Fluoride helps to make teeth more resistant to acid that can cause cavities,” says Matthew Messina, professor of clinical dentistry at Ohio State University College of Dentistry and spokesperson for the American Dental Association. Water itself also cleans your mouth with every sip, washing away leftover food and acids that can cause cavities and tooth erosion.
Be careful with: sugary drinks like sodas, sports drinks and fruit juices. They’re filled with sugar that the bad bacteria in your mouth use to attack your tooth enamel. They’re also acidic, which is bad for teeth, and any caffeine in them can dry out your mouth.
Milk and other dairy products such as cheese and yogurt are rich in both calcium and phosphates, which help replace minerals your teeth might have lost when you've eaten other types of foods. They also help rebuild tooth enamel and neutralize harmful acids in other foods. Cheese is especially helpful this way as it contains casein, a type of protein that research shows stabilizes and repairs tooth enamel, says Brian Novy, chief dental officer at the Alliance Dental Center in Quincy, Massachusetts, and a lecturer on oral health policy and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine.
Be careful with: yogurt, which has been linked to an increased risk of tooth decay in children. This may be because kids tend to eat yogurts high in sugar, Wolff says. Stick to brands that have 10 grams of sugar or less per serving.
3. Fruits and veggies
It really doesn’t matter what kind: They’re all good for your chompers, Novy says. Why? They’re all high in water, which helps wash away harmful acids and debris in your mouth, and they’re rich in fiber, which helps to balance the sugars they contain and helps to clean your teeth. Crunchy, firm foods like carrots or celery that contain lots of water are also great natural teeth cleaners because they stimulate the flow of saliva, which helps to scrub away food particles and bacteria, Novy says.
Be careful with: citrusy fruits and veggies, like oranges, grapefruits and tomatoes. Frequent exposure to such acidic foods can erode enamel, making teeth more susceptible to tooth decay over time, according to the American Dental Association. “I have a lot of older patients who grow tomatoes in the summertime so that they can live on homemade tomato sauce, and it really wreaks havoc on their teeth,” Novy says. “As you age, it becomes harder for your mouth to neutralize acids, so you see more tooth damage.” Also watch out for dried fruit: It's sticky, which means it can damage your teeth because it tends to stay on them longer than other types of food. If you do eat something like raisins or prunes, rinse with water immediately after, and brush and floss carefully.
4. Lean proteins
Poultry, fish, eggs and lean cuts of beef are all rich in phosphorus, a mineral that helps to strengthen your teeth by protecting and rebuilding tooth enamel, says Libby Mills, a registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, based in Philadelphia. Protein is also important to help with gum-tissue repair and the mucosal lining of the mouth, both of which break down with age, she adds. This may be a challenge for older adults, almost half of whom already don’t get enough protein. “The biggest problem we see among older patients is that they shy away from eating protein, because it becomes harder for them to chew, especially if they’ve already lost teeth,” Wolff says.
Be careful with: processed meats. A review published in January in the British Journal of Nutrition found that oral health problems like tooth loss, dry mouth and gum disease in older ages were associated with a diet high in saturated fat, including processed meat.
5. Sugarless gum
It’s a serious saliva maker, which can help with remineralization. Why? The increased flow adds more calcium and phosphate to your saliva, which help strengthen tooth enamel, Mills says. Try to chew sugarless gum for 20 minutes after every meal, and look for one that has the American Dental Association Seal of Acceptance.
Be careful with: hard candies. They’re full of sugar, which can be harmful to your teeth. They can also trigger a dental emergency such as a broken or chipped tooth.
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They contain protein and the amino acid arginine, which has been shown to help reduce risk of cavities, Novy says. “They are actually likely to get stuck and collect in the crevices of your teeth, which is a good thing as the good bacteria in your mouth love to feed on them,” he says. Nuts also require a lot of chewing, which increases saliva production and thus reduces your risk for tooth decay.
Be careful with: crunchy snacks. It might seem satisfying to bite down on items like potato chips, but they’re loaded with starch, which tends to get trapped in your teeth. Since they also break down into sugars almost immediately once they come into contact with your saliva, they’re a recipe for disaster for your choppers, Wolff says.
7. Green tea
It’s rich in antioxidants such as catechin, which may reduce your risk of developing gum disease. One study published in the Journal of Periodontology analyzed gum health in almost 1,000 men and found that regular drinkers of green tea had better gum health than those who did not consume the tea.
Be careful with: coffee and black teas. Their caffeine can dry out your mouth, and they can also stain your teeth if you drink cup after cup. To counter their ill effects, wash them down with water and minimize the sugary add-ons.
How often you eat matters too
One final tip? Avoid endless snacking. You’re better off trying to stick to three square meals a day as much as possible. “Foods that are eaten as part of a meal cause less harm to teeth than eating lots of snacks throughout the day, because more saliva is released during a meal,” Wolff says. Saliva helps wash foods from the mouth and lessens the cavity-causing effects of acids. If you do want to nosh between meals, Wolff says his top snack picks for dental health are raw fruits and veggies, or cheese, since they all help with helpful saliva production.
Hallie Levine is a contributing writer and an award-winning medical and health reporter. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Health and Time, among other publications.