Brush always, floss often, and smile regularly to show off those pearly whites! Don’t we wish good oral health was that easy? Unlike skeletal bones that can regenerate, our teeth in their current state are what we get to cherish from now up until our grandmothers’ age, and as generous as the Tooth Fairy was years ago, I don’t wish for her company anytime soon. The good news is that in addition to optimal dental hygiene and frequent teeth cleaning, the foods we eat (or avoid) can have protective effects against tooth decay and gum disease.
What actually happens during tooth decay and gum disease? Well, our teeth are protected by a hard outer protective layer called enamel. They also host bacteria, which, when fed sugary foods, produce excess acid corroding that enamel. Even though saliva can help remineralize it, too much acid can overrule by demineralizing and causing decay. Gums that are inflamed, red, painful or that easily bleed can be a symptom of disease as caused by this bacteria.
Sugar consumption: The first question to ask yourself is how often are you drinking sugary beverages: tea, coffee with sugar (yes, even pumpkin spice lattés), soft drinks, juice (yes, even 100% juices), cocktails or beer? How often are you eating candy, cookies, cakes, pastries, chocolate, or pie? The next question is how long do those drinks and sweets sit on your teeth prior to brushing? It’s always a good reminder that the more frequent and longer the exposure of sugar to our teeth, the higher the probability of dental caries and tooth decay. So, try to limit simple sugar consumption, in beverages or hidden in baked goods, and brush as soon as you can afterwards.
Vitamin and mineral deficiencies: Due to a quick turnover of cells, the soft-tissues of our mouth can show the first signs of vitamin or mineral deficiency, but without a nutritious diet we won’t have the vitamins and minerals necessary to regenerate them. In particular, vitamin C (found in citrus fruits and dark green leafy vegetables) helps with the healing process for damaged gums, and protects against future gum disease. If your gums are showing signs of abnormal bleeding or sponginess, it may indicate a vitamin C deficiency. On the other hand, puffy lips and painful cracking can signify inadequate intake of select B-vitamins (riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B6), all of which can be found in whole grains, brown rice, and dark green leafy vegetables.
Calcium, vitamin D, and fluoride: As children, we developed the strength of our teeth through intake of calcium, vitamin D, and fluoride for structure and enamel protection, but as young women we still need to replenish these nutrients for continued protection. Whether or not you drink fluorinated water, additional fluoride can come from toothpaste and direct application through oral rinses at the dentist. Drinking milk, yogurt, or calcium fortified alternative beverages will give you both calcium and vitamin D. If you are not a fan of dairy, or can’t tolerate it, then taking vitamin D (specifically cholecalciferol) and calcium supplements may be an option. In addition, try increasing your intake of leafy greens (kale, turnip greens, or spring greens), and raw nuts (almonds, Brazil nuts).
Choose teeth protecting snacks: Eating fresh vegetables and crunchy fruits (like apples) for snacks can help decrease the sugar concentration by their high fiber and water content. Limit simple carbohydrates, but when you do eat them (crackers, chips, white bread), make sure to combine other foods with them to neutralize the acid production and prevent foods from sticking on the teeth. Try eating carbohydrate foods in a mix such as adding walnuts and pecans in a trail mix, or eating crackers with cheese or almond butter. Choose options that inhibit acid production to prevent demineralization, including drinking tea, eating cranberries, celery, and using unsweetened powdered cocoa in recipes . If you do chew gum or use mints, make sure that they don’t have sugar, but use sugar alcohols instead (such as xylitol).
Promoting the health of our teeth and gums now will help prevent problems later in life. Poor nutrition leads to poor oral health, and poor dental health leads to an inability to easily chew foods that are necessary for optimal nutrition. So may food be thy medicine this week by focusing on options that prevent tooth decay and promote healthy gums. Now that’s something to smile about.