What to Eat to Protect Your Smile
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To support your oral health from the inside out, you need to know which foods can erode tooth enamel — making teeth more vulnerable to bacteria, cavities, and decay — and which foods can help protect and rebuild your teeth’s protective surface layer.
Most foods that can damage your teeth aren’t so great for your brain and body. Sugary snacks cling to the surfaces in your mouth while lacking essential vitamins, minerals, and proteins. To support your oral health, you can cut back on these culprits and prioritize brushing and flossing after you eat.
Sweet, tart, and tangy fresh fruits are good sources of vitamins and fiber. But, with repeated exposure, the naturally occurring sugars and acids in citrus fruits can also erode tooth enamel, opening the door to cavities and tooth decay.
Foods and drinks high in sugar and carbs
Your mouth is full of bacteria, even after you brush. This is a healthy, natural, and essential part of the digestive process. Bacteria feed on sugar and carbohydrates, releasing an acid that can strip away your tooth enamel. Sipping all day on sweetened beverages like soda, energy drinks, and sweet tea repeatedly exposes your teeth to sugars. Carbohydrates like white bread can coat the teeth and create plaque.
Are sugar substitutes a healthy alternative? Sugar alcohols and other artificial sweeteners don’t promote tooth decay-causing acids as real sugar does. But, they can increase blood sugars, stimulate cravings for more sweet foods, and have no nutritional benefits. As with any sweeteners, it’s best to limit your intake of sugar substitutes.
Dried fruits, candies, granola bars, and other sticky treats adhere to the teeth, leaving behind a bacterial film. This plaque creates acids that can degrade tooth enamel until you brush and floss.
Snacking between meals (especially on foods that are sticky, processed, or high in carbohydrates) exposes your teeth to additional sugars, acids, and plaque. Snacks like chips can get stuck between teeth, creating plaque. Dentists recommend limiting snacking and brushing afterward, when possible.
Biting into ice or hard foods like popcorn and candies can chip or crack teeth, making them vulnerable to bacteria and infection.
Unsurprisingly, foods and beverages that support the heart, muscles, and bones also benefit oral health.
Fresh vegetables, lean proteins, and calcium-rich foods provide essential nutrients for healthy teeth and gums.
Crunchy fruits and veggies
Chowing down on crisp, crunchy fresh fruits and vegetables is almost like brushing your teeth. This action can loosen plaque and stimulate saliva production, which helps rinse away food particles and neutralize acids in the mouth.
Calcium is good for your bones, and it also strengthens your teeth. Consuming this mineral protects tooth enamel and helps rebuild it by replacing the calcium stripped away by acidic foods. Even if you’re avoiding dairy products, it’s easy to add more calcium to your diet.
Lean proteins and nuts
Nuts, lean animal proteins, and plant-based proteins are good sources of phosphorus, a mineral that can rebuild tooth enamel and protect against cavities.
Cocoa, coffee, tea, and red wine
Enjoy caffeinated and alcoholic beverages in moderation because they can trigger acid reflux, which may damage teeth with repeated exposure. While drinking these beverages can stain the surface of your teeth over time, they also provide beneficial polyphenols. These plant compounds have antibacterial properties that can help prevent cavities. Skip the added sugars to ensure you get the benefits without the tooth-aching drawbacks. Learn why your sweet tooth is bad for your heart, too.
The best beverage choice for your teeth is plain old water. It’s non-erosive, helps dislodge and rinse away food particles, and contains zero sugars. In most regions, tap water is fortified with fluoride. This compound can prevent and even reverse tooth decay by slowing the growth of bacteria that produce an acid while rebuilding tooth enamel from the inside.
For this reason, fluoride is in many kinds of toothpaste and mouthwashes. When applied like this, fluoride attaches to the tooth enamel, protecting the surface of the teeth.
Chewing sugar-free gum (typically sweetened with sugar alcohols) can dislodge food after a meal or snack and increase saliva production, which helps neutralize acids in the mouth. But, chewing gum may stimulate hunger and cause abdominal bloating because of air swallowing.
No matter what you eat …
No foods or drinks can replace the need for good oral hygiene habits and dental care. We all need to brush, floss, and see the dentist regularly to maintain a healthy smile.
Written by Dana Kantrowitz, a contributor for UHealth’s news service. Medically reviewed by dentists Odile Carro, D.M.D., a periodontics expert, and Maritza Vega, D.D.S., as well as Michelle Pearlman, M.D., a gastroenterologist.