Avoiding sweets and sugary beverages to prevent tooth decay is considered one of the basic rules of good oral health practices. Although solid advice, it isn’t quite as simple as that. As our blog post — “Common Dental Health Myths” — reveals, sugar itself doesn’t promote cavities. The amount of time the sugar remains in your mouth is the real cause. You may think that brushing after every meal will help. It does, but many other foods contain “hidden” sugars that work in a more insidious way to undermine your oral health. Moreover, a regular diet of highly processed foods and fast foods can cause health issues that also affect oral health.
Although most people think mainly in terms of tooth decay, such foods conduct a multi-pronged attack on teeth and gums.
According to the University of Rochester’s Health Encyclopedia, “When you drink and eat starchy or sugary foods, you’re not only feeding yourself. You’re also feeding the germs (bacteria) that can cause tooth decay and gum disease in your mouth. Plaque is a thin, invisible, sticky film of bacteria and other materials. It covers all the surfaces of all your teeth. When sugars or starches in your mouth come in contact with plaque, acids form. These acids can attack your teeth for 20 minutes or longer after you finish eating. Repeated attacks can break down the hard enamel on the surface of teeth. This leads to tooth decay. The bacteria in plaque also triggers an inflammatory response. This causes the breakdown of the gums, bone, and other supporting structures of your teeth.”
For these reasons, it’s time to take a new look at foods that are bad for your oral health. Busting myths that implicate only one category of foods will — hopefully — give you the knowledge you need to reconsider what you eat (or how you eat) if you see your own pattern described here.
The Usual Suspects – Foods that Promote Tooth Decay
Starchy foods — When you chew starchy foods, your saliva breaks down the starches into sugar. Moreover, bread, potato chips, crackers, etc., tend to get stuck between teeth or cling to the gumline. As our blog post — “The Best and Worst Foods for a Healthy Smile” — notes, look for less-refined bread varieties, such as whole wheat. These contain less added sugars and aren’t as easily broken down.
Sour candies — Candy contains large amounts of sugar, but sour candy contains more and different kinds of acids that are tougher on your teeth. Most of these candies are chewy, which means they will hang around in your mouth for a while, increasing the risk of cavities.
Soda, sports drinks, and juice — Continuously sipping sugary beverages like soda or juice feeds the bacteria in your mouth. Again, when bacteria feed on the sugar on your teeth, they leave damaging acids behind.
Pickles and pickled foods — Vinegar has acid, which is essential in the pickling process. This acid not only can cause staining but can wear away your teeth’s enamel. Most pickled foods also contain sugar.
Alcohol — Besides containing a high sugar content, alcohol dries out your mouth. This is a problem, as saliva washes away food particles that stick to your teeth and gums. Drink water between alcoholic drinks to stay hydrated — and count the number of those drinks! The short- and long-term detrimental effects of alcohol on health and well-being are well-documented.
Citrus fruits — Oranges, grapefruits and lemons contain vitamin C — which is good for you. But their acid content can erode enamel. Even squeezing a lemon or lime into water adds acid to a drink. To get their nutritional benefits, eat/drink them in moderation, then rinse with water afterward.
Dried fruits — You might assume that dried fruits are a healthy snack. But many dried fruits — apricots, prunes, figs, and raisins, to name a few — are sticky. They get stuck and cling in the teeth and their crevices, leaving behind sugar. If you eat dried fruits, rinse your mouth with water, then brush and floss after. And because they’re less concentrated with sugar, it is a better choice to eat the fresh versions instead!
The Risk of Hidden Sugars in Processed Foods
While you may have already known about hidden refined sugars in certain kinds of foods, some are very good at concealing their true identity — which is why you need to read the labels carefully!
This advice comes from The Landing Dental Spa:
“Foods that are high in any kind of sugar can lead to tooth decay. Sugar comes in many forms, but ingredients ending in ‘ose’ are usually sugars. Fructose, sucrose and glucose are three of the more well-known types of sugar that can destroy your teeth. That is why it is important to read the ingredient labels when shopping. The higher the sugar appears on the ingredients label, the more sugar is in the product. Soda, processed foods and drinks, candy, cookies and pastries are all high in sugar.
“Remember, even if a product says ‘no added sugar’ that does not mean the product is sugar-free. According to the Oral Health Foundation, it simply means that no extra sugar has been added. These products still may contain sugar, or the sugar may be listed as carbohydrates.”
You also need to be an informed consumer when dining out. According to Ranches Family Dental, “Even though sugar is the primary cause of cavities and tooth decay, salty foods can damage your teeth as well. Salt has the tendency to dry out your mouth, but moisture is necessary for keeping your mouth clean and washing away bacteria. Having a dry mouth can contribute to bad breath, bleeding gums, and gum disease. Eating too much sodium can even lead to gum recession.
“Most of the salty foods at fast food restaurants are processed carbohydrates, which our bodies treat as simple sugars. Bacteria in our mouths feed on these sugars and produce acid in the process, which can erode your tooth enamel over time. Whether you pair your meal with a soda, milkshake, or sweetened coffee drink, the chances are, any beverage you choose from a fast-food restaurant will contain high amounts of added sugar. Even a size small Coca-Cola from McDonald’s contains 39 grams of sugar, which is greater than the American Heart Association’s recommended daily sugar intake for both men and women.
“It is not just fast-food beverages that contain staggering levels of sugar. Dipping sauces, salad dressings, and even burgers and sandwiches are often filled with sugar as well. If you regularly consume fast food, you could be putting your teeth at risk for developing cavities and decay.”
Not to mention putting yourself at risk for developing type 2 diabetes. People with diabetes are significantly more likely to suffer from gum disease due to their elevated blood sugar level. In fact, about 22 percent of diabetics also have some form of periodontal disease.
A Diet that’s Healthy for Your Teeth is Healthy for You!
An article by Colgate covers the best foods for your teeth. The highlights include the following foods and their benefits.
Leafy greens — Kale, spinach, chard, collard greens, etc., are high in calcium, folic acid, and B vitamins. If you use them in a salad, be careful with the dressing! Read the label to make sure it’s low in sugar and fat, or you’ll defeat the purpose.
Apples, carrots, and celery — Apples provide hydration and fiber. Replacing sugary treats with apples promotes good saliva production. Celery helps clean your teeth because the texture can scrape leftover food particles and bacteria away from them. Carrots and celery also are great sources of fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin A.
Dairy products — Milk, cheese, yogurt, and other related products are high in calcium and protein and promote saliva production to prevent dryness (which promotes plaque build-up). If you’re lactose-intolerant, use calcium- and protein-fortified nut milk, such as almond, soy, or cashew.
Tea, nuts, and lean proteins — Unsweetened black and green teas provide plaque-fighting ingredients. Because black tea can stain teeth, drink with a straw, if possible. Lean beef, fish, poultry, and tofu have phosphorus and protein to help keep teeth healthy. Almonds are a good source of calcium and protein while being low in sugar.
Foods containing fluoride — Fluoride plays a vital role in building strong teeth and bones, helping prevent tooth decay. Eating foods with fluoride helps your teeth absorb this mineral, allowing it to help make your teeth acid-resistant. Most seafood is a good source of fluoride because oceans are full of natural sodium fluoride. Carrots, beets, canned pork and beans, canned tomato products, and cheeses all have some fluoride. This list of fluoride-enriched foods can be found on the USDA National Nutrient Database.
As we’ve said before, we tend to think of physical health and oral health as separate, because physicians take care of the health of our body, while dentists take care of our oral health. However, one affects the other. A diet that provides our body with proper nourishment from healthy sources will also keep our gums and teeth healthy for a lifetime of smiles!
Of course, regular dental care is essential to this effort. At NK Family Dental, it is our mission to provide the highest quality and most compassionate oral care to our Chicago patients, including both dental and periodontal services. Our practice is trusted for advanced oral surgery procedures and comfortable root canal treatment.
Our team of experienced, dedicated dental professionals will help address your oral health concerns, and determine the best solution for you based on your individual situation. We strive to identify treatment options that fit your needs.
Our dental specialists include our general dentist, Dr. Nilofer Khan, our endodontist, Dr. Sabek, and our periodontist, Dr. Amir Danesh. Dr. Danesh is a board-certified periodontist and Diplomat of the American Board of Periodontology. He has contributed to the publication of two books, as well as published over 20 papers in prestigious dental research journals.
We understand that the main concern you may have is cost, which is why we accept all major PPO plans for dental insurance and also offer our in-house dental plan. Please see our financing page for more information.