We’ve long known that eating sticky snacks and drinking too much fruit juice are dental don’ts, but now there’s preliminary research that may finally give us a couple of do’s to smile about. Maria Howell, D.D.S., a consumer advisor for the American Dental Association, says she can tell at a glance if patients have a healthful diet and good oral hygiene. “Not only do they have a confident smile, but the typical shape of each tooth is intact and the gums are pink,” she says.
Chew on This
The old adage that you are what you eat applies to your teeth as well. And you can reduce your risk of cavities by limiting decay-causing snacks and choosing tooth-friendly foods. So the next time you’re tempted to reach for a candy bar, think twice. Tara Gidus, R.D., of Orlando, Florida, suggests a small turkey roll-up with a slice of cheese and a piece of lettuce as a smart snack. Thanks to the cheese, you might even get an unexpected bonus. Some studies (e.g., Journal of Contemporary Dental Practice, August 2000) suggest that cheeses—including aged cheddar, Swiss, Monterey Jack, mozzarella and processed American—may provide extra protection against cavities. It’s thought that calcium, phosphorus and casein (a protein found in dairy products) account for most of cheese’scavity-fighting potential.
Crunchy fruits and vegetables stimulate the flow of saliva and aid in the rebuilding of tooth surfaces in early stages of decay, so they make great snacks too. Chewing sugar-free gum to increase saliva and drinking water or unsweetened tea also help wash away any food particles left in your mouth.
There’s preliminary research that may provide even more to smile about. A study from the University of Illinois at Chicago (American Society for Microbiology General Meeting, June 2005) found that phytochemicals in raisins may help prevent cavities and gum disease. They seem to work by inhibiting the growth of plaque and also its adherence to teeth. Yet because raisins are sugary and sticky, their net effect on oral health is still unclear.
A second study from the University of Rochester Medical Center (Caries Research, 2006) indicated that cranberry juice may be beneficial, acting something like Teflon for the teeth by keeping cavity-causing bacteria from sticking to tooth surfaces. Researchers also found evidence that cranberry juice may disrupt the formation of glucan, a building block of plaque. For now, though, don’t overdo it because the sugar added to most cranberry drinks might negate some of these benefits.
Pass this by
The sticky film that coats your teeth, known as plaque, is formed by bacteria along with acids, food particles and saliva. When you chomp away on sugary or starchy foods, it’s buffet time for bacteria. As bacteria chow down, they produce acid, which can attack your teeth for some 20 minutes after your last bite. The hard enamel covering on your teeth can only take so much and eventually breaks down, creating tiny holes, or cavities.
That’s why dentists recommend you avoid frequent snacking, particularly on sugary and starchy foods. If you snack all day, your teeth remain under a nonstop plaque attack. And gooey, chewy foods, such as candy and cookies, may stick to the surfaces of your teeth or lodge in the grooves, exposing your teeth to a longer acid bath than foods you chew and swallow quickly.
Don’t forget the sugars you drink. “If you have a child sipping on juice throughout the day or if you have a sweetened iced tea at your desk all day long, it can lead to decay,” says Gidus. And if you drink only bottled water that doesn’t contain fluoride, you might be missing out on an easy means of tooth protection.
Don’t forget the basics
Tooth decay is largely preventable. Yet it’s still the most common chronic disease in school-age children, affecting nearly 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cavities aren’t just kid stuff either. Adults are particularly susceptible to decay around the edges of fillings and in parts of the tooth root that have been exposed by gum disease.
No matter how well you eat, it’s important to brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste and to floss daily. Visit your dentist for regular cleanings and exams as well. These few simple steps combined with tooth-smart eating habits are enough to prevent many cavities. And that’s really something to smile about.
LEARN MORE: Visit the American Dental Association at ada.org.