Everyone knows that a balanced, nutritious diet is essential to healthy living. But did you know that eating patterns and food choices play an important role in preventing tooth decay and gum disease, too? You may eat with your eyes first, but your mouth, teeth, and gums are more than just tools for eating. They’re essential for chewing and swallowing—the first steps in the digestion process. Your mouth is your body’s initial point of contact with the nutrients you consume. So what you put in your mouth impacts not only your general health but also that of your teeth and gums. In fact, if your nutrition is poor, the first signs often show up in your oral health.
Your individual nutrition and calorie needs depend on your age, gender, level of physical activity and other health factors, but according to MyPlate, a website from the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, an agency of U.S. Department of Agriculture, a balanced and healthy diet should include:
Fruits and vegetables. Combined, these should cover half your plate at meals.
Grains. At least half of the grains you eat should be whole grains, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread and brown rice.
Dairy. Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy foods most often.
Protein. Make lean protein choices, such as lean beef, skinless poultry and fish. Vary your protein choices to also include eggs, beans, peas and legumes. Eat at least eight ounces of seafood a week.
In addition to diet, it’s also important to stay active for good health. Adults should get at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity physical activity every week.
For more information about eating right, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
For dental health, it’s recommended that people limit eating and drinking between meals. Of course, sometimes eating between meals must happen. Unfortunately, most people choose foods like sweets and chips for snacks; foods that harm teeth by promoting tooth decay. If you do snack, make it a nutritious choice—such as cheese, yogurt, fruits, vegetables or nuts—for your overall health and the health of your teeth. Did you know that certain foods can put you at risk for cavities and other oral health problems? Here are some MouthHealthy tips.
New School Lunch Standards
According to the National School Lunch Program, more than 23 million children and teens are overweight or obese, placing them at increased risk for serious diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer and stroke later in life.
That’s why the National School Lunch Program is working towards making sure every child has access to healthy lunch options at school. New standards for school lunches, and the incentive of federal funds (six cents per lunch) for the schools which meet these new standards, are helping in the effort.
The school lunch changes include: more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, a shift to low-fat or nonfat milk, and limits on calories, sodium, and unhealthy fats.
Diet and Tooth Decay
The foods you eat and the beverages you drink can have a direct influence on the incidence and progression of tooth decay, depending upon:
- The form of the food—whether it’s liquid, solid, sticky or slow to dissolve makes a difference.
- How often you eat sugary foods and beverages and how often you eat or drink acidic foods and beverages.
- The nutritional makeup of the food.
- The combination of the foods you eat and the order in which you eat them.
- Medical conditions you may have, such as gastrointestinal reflux and eating disorders, which can increase risk of cavities and weaken teeth.
The bacteria in your mouth use carbohydrates for food, so when you cut back on sugar, and other sources of simple carbohydrates that are easily fermentable, you reduce your cavity risk. Limit added sugars in your diet by reading food labels to determine the amount of added sugar in a food. Since ingredients are listed on the label in order of weight, from most to least, if one of the following terms is listed as one of the first few ingredients, it’s a good bet that food is high in sugar. Another tip for spotting sources of sugar—terms ending in “-ose” indicate a sugar ingredient.
Here are some common added sugars:
Top Sources of Added Sugar in the Diet and Percentages
- soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks, 35.7%
- grain-based desserts (cakes, pies) 12.9%
- fruit drinks 10.5%
- dairy-based desserts (ice cream) 6.5%
- candy 6.1%
- ready-to-eat cereals 3.8%
- sugars and honey 3.5%
- tea (sweetened) 3.5%
- yeast breads 2.1%
- all other foods 15.4%
Source: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010
Foods That May Harm Dental Health
Empty calorie foods such as candy (especially hard or sticky candies like lollipops, mints, taffy and caramel), sweets like cookies, cakes and muffins, and snack foods like chips are a cause for dental concern, not only because they offer no nutritional value, but because the amount and type of sugar that they contain that can adhere to teeth. The bacteria in your mouth feed off these sugars, releasing acids, and that’s what leads to tooth decay.
Sugar-containing drinks—soda, lemonade, juice and sweetened coffee or tea (iced or hot)—are particularly harmful because sipping them causes a constant sugar bath over teeth, which promotes tooth decay. Learn more about the potentially harmful oral health effects of drinking acidic and sugary drinks here from the Indiana Dental Association's Drinks Destroy Teeth.
Nutritious, acidic foods like tomatoes and citrus fruits can have acidic effects on tooth enamel, too, so eat them as part of a meal, not by themselves. Dried fruits, including raisins, are also good choices for a healthy diet, but since they are sticky and adhere to teeth, the plaque acids that they produce continue to harm teeth long after you stop eating them. Opt for a piece of fresh fruit instead.
Foods That May Benefit Dental Health
Cheese, milk, plain yogurt, calcium-fortified tofu, leafy greens and almonds, are foods that may benefit tooth health thanks to their high amounts of calcium and other nutrients they provide. Protein-rich foods like meat, poultry, fish, milk and eggs are the best sources of phosphorus. Both of these minerals play a critical role in dental health, by protecting and rebuilding tooth enamel.
Fruits and vegetables are good choices for a healthy smile since they are high in water and fiber, which balance the sugars they contain and help to clean the teeth. These foods also help stimulate saliva production, which washes harmful acids and food particles away from teeth and helps neutralize acid, protecting teeth from decay. Plus, many contain vitamin C (important for healthy gums and quick healing of wounds) and vitamin A (another key nutrient in building tooth enamel).
Hands down, water—particularly fluoridated water—is the most tooth-friendly beverage.
Sugar Substitutes and Sugar-Free Products
Sugar substitutes may look and taste like sugar but they don’t promote decay-causing acids in your mouth that can harm teeth. There are many types of sugar substitutes, including aspartame, erythritol, saccharin, sucralose, isomalt, sorbitol, acesulfame potassium and mannitol. You might recognize some of these names from ingredient lists on food packages, or know some of them by their brand names (Splenda, Equal and Sunett).
Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Cavities:
- Brush your teeth twice a day for two minutes to remove sugars and food particles from your teeth.
- Limit between-meal snacking.
- Keep added sugar in your diet to a minimum by making wise food and beverage choices.
- Include dairy, plenty of fruits and vegetables, and water in your diet—they all play a role in your dental health.
Source: ADA - mouthhealthy.com
Quick Nutrition Tips
Following a proper and nutritious diet not only helps keep your body healthy, but your mouth as well. Nutrition plays an important role in the health and cleanliness of your teeth, gums and mouth.
Limit Soda, Coffee and Alcohol
Although these beverages contain a high level of phosphorous, which is a necessary mineral for a healthy mouth, too much phosphorous can deplete the body's level of calcium. This causes dental hygiene problems such as tooth decay and gum disease. Beverages containing additives such as corn syrup and food dye can make pearly white teeth appear dull and discolored. Therefore, it is best to choose beverages like milk, which helps strengthen teeth and build stronger enamel, giving you a healthy, beautiful smile.
Drink Tap Water When Possible
If bottled water is your main source of drinking water, you could be missing the decay-preventive benefits of fluoride.
Monitor Your Low-Carb Lifestyle
Despite their popularity, low-carb diets can cause bad breath. A balanced, dental-healthy diet can help reduce tooth decay.
Increase Your Calcium Intake
After age 20, both men and women lose more bone mass than they form so it is important to restore lost calcium with a daily supplement and by eating fruits and vegetables high in calcium, such as dark leafy greens. These foods will also help to lower the acid buildup in the saliva that can lead to breakdown of tooth enamel.
Take a Daily Dose of Vitamins C and D
These vitamins help support the absorption of healthy mouth minerals such as calcium and phosphorous, which support the bone and gum tissue, keeping it healthy. This is an easy way to maintain dental hygiene and fight gum disease.
Put Out the Cigarette
Smoking cigarettes is one of the greatest contributors to the aging mouth. According to the Center for Disease Control, more than 22 million women in the United States smoke cigarettes. In addition to staining teeth, smoking interrupts calcium absorption in the body and can also cause potentially life-threatening diseases such as oral cancer. So stop smoking and enjoy the health benefits as well as a healthy, beautiful smile.
Caring for Kids' Teeth
How can I avoid baby bottle cavities?
Once your baby's teeth begin to appear, you need to take extra care that these new teeth do not develop cavities. Babies can develop teeth cavities through "nursing bottle mouth," which is caused by extended nursing on milk, formula or juices, especially at bedtime or naptime. You should not use a feeding bottle as a pacifier. If you must give your baby a bottle at bedtime or naptime, make sure it contains plain water. You should not give a baby a pacifier that has been dipped in honey or sugar.
How do I care for my baby's gums?
Good dental health should begin at birth. After each feeding, gently wipe the baby's gums with a soft, clean and damp washcloth or gauze pad.
What should I know about teething?
The discomfort of teeth coming into the mouth can cause your baby to become irritable. You can ease some of the discomfort by lightly rubbing the baby's gums with a clean finger or a wet, soft cloth. A cool teething ring can also help to soothe your baby's tender gums.
When the first teeth appear, begin using a children's soft-bristle toothbrush to clean them on a daily basis. Give your baby regular oral cleanings after each meal to make dental health care a habit.
When will my baby's teeth come in?
Teeth begin forming in your baby even before birth. Here is when you can expect to begin seeing them:
- Central incisor (front two upper and bottom teeth): 6-12 months
- Lateral incisor (the two teeth flanking the upper and bottom front two teeth): 9-16 months
- Canines (pointy teeth in the upper jaw): 16-23 months
- First molars (upper and bottom back teeth): 13-19 months
- Second molars (upper and bottom back teeth): 22-33 months
All 20 primary teeth — also called baby teeth — are present in the jawbones at birth. The lower two front teeth are usually the first to erupt. This most often occurs somewhere around 6 months after birth. Do not be concerned if your baby is a little late. The numbers here are only an average. By age 3, all 20 primary teeth should be present.
What is the relationship between enamel, fluoride and good dental health?
Enamel, the hardest substance in the body, is the outermost layer of the tooth and protects the tooth from decay and cavities. Fluoride, a naturally occurring substance, can strengthen tooth enamel, making it more resistant to decay. Some sources of fluoride that help prevent cavities are fluoridated drinking water, fluoride-containing toothpastes and fluoride mouthwashes. Your dental professional or physician may recommend or prescribe additional fluoride treatments for your child's dental health. Be sure to follow his/her instructions. Too much fluoride can change the structure of tooth enamel, resulting in discoloration.
How do I take the fear out of the first dental visit?
Your child should visit a dental professional by age 1. You can make the first visit to the dental office enjoyable and positive. Before the visit, tell your child that someone will look at and clean his or her teeth. Allow the dentist and other members of the dental staff to introduce other dental health procedures. Your dental professional will examine your child's mouth for early signs of cavities or other dental health problems. He or she will also tell you many of the things you'll need to know about helping your child grow up free of cavities.
What types of toothpaste do children like?
A good way to encourage your child's dental hygiene is by using a pleasantly flavored fluoride toothpaste. The taste and appearance of a toothpaste can make brushing a more enjoyable experience, so children are more likely to brush twice each day and brush for longer periods of time. Appropriate brushing can help prevent cavities, gum disease and other dental health issues. Children age 6 or less should brush twice a day using no more than a pea-sized dab of toothpaste and a soft-bristle brush to remove plaque and provide fluoride protection. Before age 2, children should not use toothpaste that contains fluoride.
What role does nutrition play in healthy dental development?
Healthy eating habits lead to healthy teeth. Many snacks that children eat can lead to the formation of cavities. Try to limit your child's snacks. If your child must snack, choose nutritious foods such as vegetables, low-fat yogurt and low-fat cheese.
When should my child start flossing?
You should start flossing your child’s teeth as soon as two teeth touch each other. As they develop dexterity, you can help them learn to floss. To stress the importance, floss for them regularly until they're able to do it themselves. Use floss, like Glide®, that doesn't hurt their teeth and is comfortable on their gums.