Healthy teeth depend on the right foods. Are you eating the best foods to keep your teeth healthy?
When you consider how much time your teeth are exposed to foods and liquids during the day, it’s no wonder that your diet plays such a big role in keeping your teeth healthy. And when it comes to healthy teeth, it’s not just about choosing the right foods to put in your mouth, it’s also about how long they stay there.
Your teeth may seem hard and durable as stone, but in reality they’re constantly being built up and broken down—just like your bones. What’s important is to keep the two processes in balance. And that’s why the foods you eat play such a significant role in keeping your teeth healthy. Certain foods accelerate the breakdown of the enamel on the surface of your teeth, while other foods help to re-mineralize teeth and protect them.
You know that sugar isn’t good for your teeth, but you may not know exactly why. Whenever you eat sugary foods, the sugar becomes food for the bacteria that naturally live in your mouth. As the bacteria digest these sugars, they convert them into acids that can eat away at your tooth enamel.
If you look closely in the mirror a few hours after a meal, it’s likely that you’ll see little deposits of white plaque forming on your teeth. What you’re actually looking at is a sticky film of bacteria at work—de-mineralizing your teeth. That’s why frequent brushing and flossing to remove plaque—as well as paying attention to the foods that you eat—is so important in keeping your teeth healthy.
Sugary foods, and some starchy foods, too, are not the best things for maintaining the health of your teeth. The bacteria just love carbohydrates that arrive in your mouth in the form of simple sugars and refined starches. Foods like sugary sodas and candy provide the bacteria with a readily available source of the simple sugars. And foods like white bread, crackers or pretzels aren’t much better for your teeth, because these highly refined starches are easily broken down into sugar by enzymes in your saliva.
You know fruits and veggies are good for your body, but these foods help keep your teeth healthy, too. Crunchy fruits and veggies contain plenty of water, which helps to dilute the effects of sugars and starches. And their coarse textures act like a natural toothbrush, helping to scrub tooth surfaces clean.
Dairy products are great sources of calcium and phosphorus—the two most important minerals for the health of your teeth. Calcium and phosphorus help to re-mineralize the teeth, which means that more calcium and phosphorus is going into the teeth, rather than leaving. Nonfat and low-fat milk, yogurt or cottage cheese are your best bets. Cheese contains calcium and phosphorus, too. But there’s another reason it’s considered good for your teeth—eating cheese stimulates the flow of saliva, which helps to wash away food particles. Just remember to eat the low-fat varieties.
It isn’t just the total amount of sugar that our teeth are exposed to that’s the problem, it’s also the amount of time that these sugars stay in contact with tooth surfaces. The longer that sugars and starches stay in the mouth, the more damage that’s likely to happen. That’s why sticky foods, sugary drinks and hard candies are particularly bad for the health of your teeth—they all expose them to a continuous bath of sugar.
Dentists recommend that you eat your sugary or starchy foods as part of a meal, rather than by themselves, to dilute the effects of the sugar.
Highly acidic foods, like citrus fruits, can actually wear away at tooth enamel—but that doesn’t mean you should avoid eating them. Instead, include citrus foods with meals, rather than eating them by themselves, which will lessen the amount of acid that comes in direct contact with your teeth. Another reason that soft drinks are so bad for your teeth, by the way, is that many of them—in addition to the huge amounts of sugar they contain—are also highly acidic.
Dentists will tell you that you should brush your teeth after every meal or snack, but that’s not always practical. If you can’t brush, try to finish off your meal with a crunchy apple and a glass of water. You can also chew a piece of sugarless gum. It actually stimulates saliva flow and can help dislodge food particles, so it’s not a bad option if you don’t have your brush handy.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.