How our diets can affect our oral health

Brian Maurer
June 26, 2021
Oral Health and Lifestyle Advice
minute read

We all know that we should brush, floss, and avoid sugar, but did you know that brushing too soon after eating can actually do more harm than good? In this blog, we’ll cover: 

How our diet can feed cavity-causing bacteria

Our mouths are home to a community of bacteria and other microbes known as our oral microbiome. Each of us has a unique microbiome made up of, on average, 150 bacterial species (with over 700 that have been identified!).

Some of these bacteria help keep us healthy by breaking down food, producing vitamins, and fighting off infection. Other species can be harmful and contribute to the development of cavities and gum disease. 

Certain harmful species of these bacteria live on the surfaces of our teeth. These bacteria thrive on eating sugar and carbs, so whenever you eat or drink anything with sugar, the bacteria have a heyday.

Like all life forms, the bacteria chowing down produces waste. The waste from these bacteria comes in the form of acids that attack your tooth enamel.

What you can do

  1. If you’re eating sugar, do it all in one sitting [1]. The longer the bacteria have to eat, the more acid they will release. Eating sugar in a short duration reduces they time they have to make more acid.

Food and drinks that can cause cavities

Many of the popular drinks we consume are, unfortunately, harsh on our teeth. Coffee and fruit drinks are all acidic. Carbonated drinks, especially soda, sports drinks, and sparkling water, are the most damaging to your teeth due to carbonation (even if they are sugar-free). 

This applies to food as well. Fruits, dishes with high amounts of citrus, and sour candies are also damaging to your teeth. Extra sour candies have been found to be nearly as bad as battery acid for your teeth [2].  

What you can do

For many of us, cutting back on coffee and other acidic dietary items is out of the question. Thankfully there are a few easy ways to limit the amount of damage they will do to your teeth. 

  1. Wait at least 30 minutes before brushing your teeth. This sounds counterintuitive, but brushing immediately after consuming acidic items can do more damage to your teeth. When we consume acidic things, the enamel in our teeth becomes soft due to acid exposure. If we brush while our enamel is soft, we risk scratching and scraping off the enamel, raising our risk of tooth decay and cavities. 
  2. Keep a side glass of water handy. Between sips of your coffee, sparkling water, or other acidic beverages, drink some still water and use it to rinse the excess acid remnants off of your teeth. 
  3. Use a straw. Since most of the damage from acidic items comes from the acid contacting your enamel, you can use a straw to bypass contact with your teeth when drinking. This also applies to consuming these drinks faster to avoid more prolonged time exposure to the acid. 
  4. Use mouth sprays or gum containing xylitol to raise your mouth pH. Consuming acidic foods leaves your mouth in an acidic state until your saliva has a chance to restore the pH level. To expedite this, you can use products like xylitol that neutralize the acid levels. 

Foods you should eat

So now that we’ve covered food and drinks that can harm our teeth let’s wrap up on a positive with foods that can help fend off tooth decay and gum disease. 

Xylitol and sugar-free chewing gum

One of our body’s best natural defenses against cavities is our saliva. In addition to washing away excess food particles and debris, saliva has antimicrobial properties that help keep harmful bacteria at bay [3]. 

Also, we’ve covered how the enamel in our teeth becomes soft after eating certain foods. Saliva helps with re-hardening our teeth by contributing molecules our teeth need (remineralization) [4]. 

Since saliva is our body’s best defense against cavities, anything that creates more saliva helps even more, which is where chewing gum comes in. Studies show that the act of chewing helps generate up to 10x more saliva [5]. 

We know to avoid sugar, so instead, look for a sugar-free or xylitol-containing options to use after meals. 

Cheese and Dairy

There’s good news for cheese lovers; cheese has multiple benefits for your teeth. Cheese is usually low in sugar but contains high levels of calcium and proteins that play a role in protecting and rebuilding your enamel [6]. 

In one study, participants who ate cheese 5x/week or more saw a reduced risk of cavities of 53% [7]. A follow-up study found that subjects over 65 years old with root cavities consumed half the amount of cheese as those without root cavities [8]. 

High fiber vegetables

We all know that we should eat more vegetables to stay healthy, and this maxim holds true for oral health as well. 

Vegetables high in fiber have been shown to stimulate saliva production and neutralize acid, both of which protect teeth from decay. They also tend to be high in vitamins A and C, which aid in rebuilding tooth enamel and helping gums heal quickly from wounds, respectively. 

Foods high in arginine

Arginine is a chemical building block known as an “amino acid.” Multiple studies have looked into its apparent ability to destabilize the plaque build-up on our teeth that harmful bacteria can hide in. More clinical studies are needed to establish the efficacy of arginine in reducing plaque buildup, but early signs are promising [9]. 

Foods high in arginine content include peanuts, chickpeas, lentils, soybeans, pumpkin seeds, and poultry [10]. 

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