When it comes to your health, you really are what you eat, and nowhere is that more evident than in your mouth. According to Hadie Rifai, DDS, a dentist at the Cleveland Clinic, brushing and flossing are the most important things you can do for your teeth; however, the foods you eat can also make or break your smile.
To protect your pearly whites, zero in on enemy number one: the acid in your diet. Acidic foods like citrus fruits and soft drinks are obvious sources. But any time you eat something sugary or starchy (pretzels, cookies, candy, bread), the sugars react with bacterial plaque to form enamel-eroding acid. When enamel breaks down, your teeth can become discolored, sensitive and prone to decay — and that doesn’t look or feel good.
Luckily, there are also foods that help neutralize acids, stimulate saliva, and even repair tooth enamel. Here, six ways to eat your way to a healthier smile.
The science: There’s a biological reason why Fido likes to munch on bones and sticks: They help scrape plaque from his teeth. While we don’t recommend chomping on a pile of kindling, there are foods that can scrub away debris. “Hard, fiber-rich fruits and vegetables will help clean the teeth and promote saliva, which is important,” says Dr. Karyn Kahn, DDS, a dentist at Cleveland Clinic. Yes, saliva serves a purpose: Namely, it neutralizes tooth-damaging acids and contains calcium and phosphates that rebuild enamel.
The plan: Munch on carrots, celery, apples, pears, or any other raw produce that is crunchy and high in water, advises Dr. Rifai. Just be sure to eat them plain, not doused in sugary dips or spreads.
Brew the Right Thing
The science: What’s your cup of tea? Whatever your bag, both green and black can help keep your mouth happy. Thanks to chemicals known as catechins, green tea may help tamp down inflammation that can lead to gum disease. Both green and black brews also help keep gingivitis-causing bacteria at bay and can even take the stink out of bad breath. Of course, adding sugar to the mix is not the best recipe for pristine teeth or optimal health. We recommend taking yours unsweetened.
The plan: Drink a cup of green or black tea twice a day. Like coffee and soda, tea can stain the teeth, so rather than sip it throughout the day — which increases the amount of time it remains in contact with tooth enamel — drink it once or twice a day and follow with a glass of water.
The science: Include low-fat milk, cheese and yogurt in your diet to spend less time in the dentist’s chair. Research shows that those who regularly dine on dairy have a lower risk of gum disease. Dairy products help reduce levels of enamel-eroding acid in the mouth. They’re also a major source of calcium and phosphorus. “Calcium is very important, because 99 percent of the calcium in our bodies is deposited in bones and in our teeth,” explains Kahn. Phosphorus, meanwhile, works closely with calcium to fortify teeth and bones.
The plan: You might say that Camembert is the “big cheese” when it comes to eradicating acid. Because cheese is high in saturated fat, treat yourself to just a one-inch cube (about half an ounce) after your meal to neutralize acid on your teeth and protect them from damage.
Just Add Water
The science: Every time you eat, the acidity level in your mouth goes up. If food stays on your teeth because you don’t rinse or brush, it can lead to gingivitis, explains Dr. Rifai. “By drinking water throughout the day, you neutralize those acids,” says Kahn. People with dry mouth have to be especially vigilant about keeping hydrated, because they don’t have enough saliva to bathe the teeth. A steady stream of water helps keep food from hardening on those pearly whites, and it can combat bad breath as well.
The plan: Rinse your mouth with water after eating or drinking, and sip water throughout the day.
Take the Bait
The science: Chew on this: Research in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that the omega-3 fish oils DHA and EPA can reduce the risk of periodontitis —advanced gum disease that damages not only the gums but also the bones that support the teeth. Unless you’re a jack-o’-lantern, a toothless grin is probably not the look you’re going for! Besides being rich in heart-healthy fats, cold-water fish like wild salmon, trout, mackerel and tuna are valuable sources of hard-to-come-by vitamin D, which can slash the risk of tooth decay by 50 percent.
The plan: Get hooked on canned salmon. One serving of canned salmon with bones (don’t worry — they’re edible and can be mashed with a fork so you barely detect them) provides 30 percent of your daily calcium needs, more than 100 percent of your daily vitamin D requirements, and four times the omega-3s of canned tuna. Aim for two to three servings of fatty fish per week.
Get Sweet on Xylitol
The science: A natural low-calorie sweetener found in corn, berries and birch trees, xylitol stimulates mineral-rich saliva to help repair enamel and decrease the risk of cavities. When harmful plaque bacteria absorb xylitol, they cannot multiply, produce acids, or stick to teeth — thus rendering them powerless.
The plan: Chew specially formulated gum that contains a high dose of xylitol for short periods of time after eating. “Chewing gum can damage and overstress the muscles in the temporomandibular joints,” says Kahn, which is why she recommends using it for just five minutes after every meal.