As the old saying goes: you are what you eat. That's true of your teeth and oral health as well. The foods you eat can really make a difference in a healthy mouth. And as you probably already know, there are also some foods you should avoid to keep your teeth and gums healthy. Here's a quick review of the foods that can make a difference in your oral health.
Build a Good Foundation
Your teeth are made of minerals like calcium, phosphorus and magnesium – all of which are supplied by your diet. Dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt are good sources of these minerals. You also need iron, which is found in red meat, and some nuts and seeds, like almonds, Brazil nuts and cashews.
Combining iron with vitamin C helps promote its absorption, so drink a glass of orange juice with your steak. Sesame seeds are also a good source of calcium. Leafy greens are another good source of minerals like calcium and also supply vitamins like vitamin C and folic acid. Whole grains can provide additional minerals and organ meats like liver are particularly rich sources of minerals like iron.
Vitamins and Antioxidants
Chicken and fish can help supply the vitamin niacin (vitamin B3); low levels of niacin can result in bad breath and sores in the mouth. Vitamin D helps your body absorb calcium. Your body makes this important vitamin from sunlight, but it's also available from fish, egg yolks and supplements like cod liver oil. Vitamin C is an antioxidant that strengthens blood vessels, reduces inflammation and helps your body produce collagen – an important protein that makes up the supporting structure for teeth, skin and other tissues. Bell peppers, oranges, kiwi, strawberries, broccoli and kale are all good sources of vitamin C.
Probiotics and Prebiotics
Probiotic foods help nourish the beneficial bacteria that live in your digestive system (which begins in the healthy mouth). Fermented foods like yogurt, kombucha, sauerkraut, miso and fermented vegetables all contain probiotics. Some research indicates probiotics may even be plaque-fighters and can promote healthy gums. Prebiotics are high fiber foods that nourish the beneficial bacteria – leafy greens are a good source of prebiotics. Jerusalem artichokes, asparagus, bananas, leeks, onions and garlic are also good choices for prebiotic foods. The raw form of prebiotic foods is generally preferably to the cooked version.
A well-hydrated mouth decreases the risk of tooth decay. Milk is important for calcium, but it also helps wash away acids that attack the tooth enamel and stimulates the production of saliva. Water is another saliva generator and also has the additional benefit of washing away acids that can erode tooth enamel. Black and green tea contain polyphenols, substances that have been found to reduce toxic bacteria in the mouth. Tea is also rich in fluoride, which helps strengthen teeth. Red wine and black coffee may also have some oral health benefits, although they can also stain your teeth. However, other beverages like soft drinks may moisturize, but they have distinct negative effects as they contain acid and – in some cases – sugar.
Some foods can help fight plaque – the sticky deposit on your teeth that fosters bacterial growth and tooth decay – or directly attack the bacteria that cause tooth decay. Among these are cranberries, garlic, ginger, onions, Shitake mushrooms, wasabi mustard and raisins.
Foods that contain lots of fiber – like raw celery, apples, cucumbers and carrots – stimulate the production of saliva, which can neutralize acids and enzymes that would otherwise attack your teeth. High-fiber foods are also naturally abrasive, so they offer some cleaning action as you chew them. Sugarless gum is another way to promote saliva secretion, which helps decrease plaque formation.
Foods to Avoid
Just as the right foods can help promote strong teeth and oral health, some can have the opposite effect. Foods that are high in acid can damage tooth enamel (think pickled foods, lemons, vinegar and soft drinks). Sugar, of course, is well-known as a contributor to tooth decay, and when combined with acid – as it is in soft drinks or candies like lemon drops – it's a double whammy. Sugar also makes your immune system less effective at fighting infections, so it is really best avoided for the sake of both your oral and overall health. Highly refined carbohydrates like crackers, breads and snack foods can promote tooth decay because they lodge in crevices between the teeth and almost immediately begin to convert starches to sugar.
For optimum health, eat a wide variety of foods, including both raw and cooked foods. Limit sweets and refined snack foods. Stay hydrated and don't forget that even with a healthy diet, regular brushing, flossing and preventive dental care are necessary for a healthy mouth and bright smile.