We all know the basics of good oral care: brush in the morning and evening, floss each day and visit the dentist twice per year. But there are smaller, incremental steps we can take to guarantee good health, including the food we eat each day. Nutrition is important for every cell in our bodies -- and that naturally extends to teeth and gums. In particular, food choices feed the mouth's live-in nemesis: plaque-causing bacteria, according to an explainer from the Yale School of Medicine. They wrote:
When you drink and munch starchy or sugary foods, you're not only feeding yourself, you're feeding the plaque that can cause havoc in your mouth ... When sugars or starches in your mouth come in contact with plaque, the acids that result can attack teeth for 20 minutes or more after you finish eating. Repeated attacks can break down the hard enamel on the surface of teeth, leading to tooth decay. Plaque also produces toxins that attack the gums and bone supporting the teeth.
Avoid any food that combines sugar, acid and stickiness, adds Miriam R. Robbins DDS, Associate Chair of the Department of Oral and Maxiofacial Pathology, Radiology and Medicine at the New York University College of Dentistry. Enemy #1 in her opinion? Sour, chewy candies like Starburst and Skittles.
As for brushing away the bad food, Robbins recommends caution: brushing too soon after a highly acidic or sugary meal can actually cause additional damage to teeth, the enamel of which is softened immediately following contact with "bad" food. She recommends waiting at least 20 to 40 minutes before whipping out a toothbrush.
But if starch, acid and sugar (along with overenthusiastic brushing!) are tooth killers, what can we provide in place of them? Overall, look for items that stimulate saliva production, which has a neutralizing effect on acid. That's because saliva naturally contains bicarbonate, which neutralizes acid, as well as calcium and phosphate which help to "re-mineralize" the tooth's surface, according Mark S. Wolff DDS, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Cariology and Comprehensive Care, also at the NYU College of Dentistry. Other acid neutralizers, like those found in dairy can also help prevent tooth decay and gum disease.
Below, seven foods that have been shown to help in the research or clinical practice:
Cheese is low in sugar and acid and high in calcium, making it a good choice. But it also contains casein, a protein found in milk that is particularly useful for fortifying the tooth's surface. In fact, dentists frequently prescribe a remineralizing paste called MI Paste, which is made from casein, to patients who are particularly prone to cavities, says Wolff. Robbins adds that she often recommends aged parmesan as a remedy against the degrading effects of acid exposure that accompanies frequent vomiting, often experienced by pregnant women or cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy.
You won't hear many positive health claims surrounding artificial sweeteners, but when it comes to dental health, there's one exception: Xylitol. The sugar replacement, which is found in many sugar-free gums and mints, is helpful because it prevents harmful bacteria in plaque from metabolizing sugar, thus generating harmful acids that degrade tooth enamel. In other words, it's the anti-sugar -- doing exactly the opposite of what sucrose can do, which is feed the bacteria that leads to tooth decay and gum disease. Additionally, "gum mechanically removes plaque and bacteria from your teeth," says Robbins.
Most raw, fresh veggies are good for teeth because their fibrous nature requires chewing, which causes an abundance of saliva. But according to Robbins, celery is a particular winner because it breaks down into fibrous strands that naturally clean the teeth.
According to the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research, a division of the National Institutes of Health, "67 percent of the United States population served by public water supplies, drink water with optimal fluoride levels for preventing decay." That's because fluoride remineralizes teeth, reversing damage caused by acids, which strip away the enamel layer, or "demineralize" it. So, if you live in a community with tap water that is already fluoridated, drink up!
Fresh fruit is another good option because, like veggies, its fibrous nature stimulates saliva production. Pears, in particular, are a good pick -- one 2004 study found that the fruit had a larger acid neutralizing effect on tooth surface than other types of fresh fruit, including bananas, apples, mandarins and pineapples. But you may want to skip the dried fruit when it comes to teeth: Robbins points out that the concentrated, sticky and sugary nature of dried fruits make them tooth enamel killers.
Another healthful provider of casein, yogurt also contains calcium and phosphates that remineralize the teeth.
Sesame seeds are thought to reduce plaque and help remineralize tooth enamel. A method of gargling with sesame oil, known as "oil pulling," is popular in Ayurvedic medicine. And in one controlled, triple-blind study, washing with sesame oil was just as effective as using chlorhexidine mouthwash in reducing plaque, gingival scores and the total bacterial count among a group of teenage boys who already had a diagnosis of plaque-induced gingivitis.