The most common effects of diet on our teeth are the development of dental decay and enamel erosion. Decay results from the build up of sticky plaque on our teeth (which is formed mostly from bacteria) breaking down sugar and carbohydrate in our mouths, which produces acid that eats away at our teeth. Acidic foods and drinks in our diet also soften and attack our enamel.
What about our gums? The bacteria in plaque on our teeth can irritate our gums making them red, inflamed and susceptible to bleeding. This is the first sign of gum disease. If left untreated it progresses and effects our jaw bone too resulting in loose and wobbly teeth, painful gum abscesses and eventually tooth loss. This process is called Periodontal disease and it has been named as a risk factor for coronary artery disease. In fact, some of the bacteria found in the arterial wall plaque are the same as which colonise our gums.
We need to eat healthy and nutritious foods to help take care of our teeth and gums and we need healthy teeth and gums in order to eat nutritious foods.
The most obvious culprit is sugar which is in fact present in some form in almost all the foods we eat including milk, bread, fruit and vegetables. It is mostly the added or refined sugars that cause the most harm though. It makes sense that the more sugar we eat the more likely we are to have tooth decay, but that's not the whole story. It's actually not the total amount of sugar in our diets that's important but the frequency with which we consume it.
Simply reading food labels and choosing foods and drinks that are low in or free from added sugars is a great habit to get into. Here are some other tips to a healthy diet for our teeth and gums:
- drink plenty of water - it's free from sugars, helps rinse our mouths out after eating, keeps us hydrated & our mouths moist, plus most tap water contains fluoride which has been found to reduce tooth decay
- avoid sticky foods such as dried fruit, cereal bars, and lollies as it is hard for our mouths to get rid of these sticky sugars from our teeth
- limit sugary snacks to mealtimes when we naturally produce more saliva to help cleanse our mouths
- avoid fizzy and sports drinks which are very high in sugars but also contain acid. Fruit juices are also high in sugars so if you do want to drink them then do so at mealtimes only and then use a straw so the sugary liquid doesn't bathe the teeth as much. It's good to remember that every time we have a sweet drink the sugar and acid remains in our mouths for approximately 20 minutes afterwards so sipping slowly and regularly throughout the day is bad news for our teeth
- limit refined carbohydrate such as bread, pasta, crackers etc. to mealtimes as these too stick to the teeth and produce decay causing acids when they are broken down
- avoid or limit acidic foods and drinks such as citrus foods, carbonated drinks (even the sugar-free ones and soda water) and alcoholic beverages. When you do have them follow them with plenty of water
- if you do want to snack between meals then choose foods that are kinder to our teeth and gums such as raw and crunchy vegetables, like carrots and celery, that can actually help clean the surfaces of our teeth, or cheese, plain yoghurt and nuts
- drink a glass of water and chew sugar-free gum after meals to help stimulate saliva flow which naturally cleanses the mouth
- brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride containing toothpaste and floss daily to help rid your mouth of food debris and acids thereby decreasing the risk of decay.
- Babies and children should avoid soft and sloppy foods as regular chewing of harder foods helps to grow the jaws, face and airways to their correct size. This helps avoid the need for braces or developing other conditions such as sleep apnoea.
Lastly, try to maintain a healthy and nutritionally balanced diet where a variety of foods from the main food groups are eaten in moderation since a healthier body results in a healthier mouth.