When you are eating, you are not only feeding yourself, you are also feeding the bacteria in your mouth that can cause tooth decay or gum disease. Thus, what you eat plays a crucial role on the health of your teeth and your gums.

To understand how food affects our teeth, we need to first understand plaque and its affect on the mouth. Plaque is a film of sticky bacteria and other materials that forms in your mouth over time. It’s found on the surface of your teeth, and is often visible around the gum lines and behind your teeth. Left too long, plaque can discolour and give off a brown or yellow hue on the back of your teeth. Build-ups of plaque need to be removed by your dental hygienist as brushing is often not enough with stubborn deposits of plaque built over time.

When sugars or starches enter your mouth and come into contact with plaque, the bacteria eats up the sugars and converts them into erosive acids that linger on the teeth. These acids attack your teeth for 20 minutes or more after eating. Prolonged attacks of acid, erode the hard enamel on the surface of your teeth. This causes tooth decay and cavities. The bacteria in plaque also creates inflammation of the gums which causes the breakdown of the tissue and bones that form the supporting structures for your teeth.

It, therefore, becomes very important to be conscious of what you include in your diet to protect the health and longevity of your smile. To do this well requires knowledge of how different foods affect your mouth, what’s good for your teeth, and what to avoid.

Below are some tips on the best and worst foods for your teeth.

Foods to be cautious of:

  1. Sticky sweets and candies.
    Sticky sweets such as gummy lollies and even dried fruits, cling to your teeth leaving harmful deposits of sugar well after you’ve finished eating. This sugar is a haven for the bacteria found in your plaque which gets eaten up to become harmful acids. The general rule of thumb with sugary sweets is to try choose those that clear out of your mouth quickly, and to eat them very sparingly. Eating sugary foods within a large meal helps dissolve and dilute the sugar for ingesting. Brushing your teeth 20 minutes after ingesting a sugary snack also helps to remove it. It’s important to note that you brush your teeth 20 minutes after ingesting sugar to allow your mouth time to neutralise the sugar before brushing. If you brush before, you may simply rub the sugar into your teeth causing more damage than intended
  2. Starchy Foods.
    Things such as soft white bread, potato chips, pasta and rice get trapped in your mouth providing a feeding ground for the bacteria in your mouth to convert the food into erosive acids.
  3. Sugary Drinks.
    These tend to slip through the cracks as people often don’t realise they’re drinking a constant stream of sugary liquid throughout the day. Sugary drinks (especially carbonated soft drinks) have dangerously high concentrations of sugar present. Most of these also have high levels of corrosive phosphoric and citric acid that breaks down tooth enamel. The best drink to have throughout the day is water for its sugar free, low calorie content. Other alternatives include sugarless teas or infused waters.
  4. Alcohol
    Most alcohol has a high sugar content which is as harmful as having soft drinks. Additionally, alcohol also dries out your mouth which causes the saliva to thicken which effectively weakens the body’s natural defense mechanism against bacteria.

Ideal foods:

  1. Dairy Rich Foods:
    Cheeses, Yoghurt, Milk and other dairy products are rich in calcium which is vital for restoring minerals in your teeth that may have dissolved from eating other foods. The potent calcium found in dairy also rebuilds tooth enamel. The chewing required to digest cheese also helps to produce saliva which is pivotal for neutralising the mouth’s acidity and washing away deposits that may have formed from eating other foods. Cheese has also been found to increase the pH level in the mouth which combats the presence of acids. The good bacteria found in yoghurt also helps to wash out the bacteria that forms as plaque. The best yoghurt for your teeth is natural with no added sugars.
  2. Fibre-Dense Fruits and Vegetables:
    Fibrous fruit and vegetables are often referred to as ‘nature’s toothbrushes’ by dentists. Crunchy fruit and vegetables such as celery, carrots, apples contain hard fibres that effectively scrub away at bacteria and plaque as you chew them. They also help produce saliva whilst being chewed. Saliva is your body’s natural defence against cavities and gum disease. It acts to reduce the effects of acids and enzymes attacking your teeth. It also contains traces of calcium and phosphate which helps to restore minerals that may have eroded from for your teeth due to bacterial acids ingested from your diet. It’s recommended that after eating a meal, you should chew on some raw carrot/celery or an apple to help naturally brush your teeth and build up saliva in your mouth.
  3. Leafy Greens
    An item on most health lists, leafy greens provide multiple benefits to your teeth in the form of their rich calcium content which helps build the enamel found on your teeth, as well as their folic acid (a type of B vitamin) that provides numerous benefits to your whole system including treating gum disease.
  4. Nuts and Seeds
    Nuts such as almonds and cashews are rich in calcium and protein whilst being low in sugars. Their crunchy form also helps produce saliva. A handful of nuts can help balance out the pH levels in your mouth whilst strengthening the enamel of your teeth.
  5. Sugar-Free Chewing Gum
    Chewing sugarless gum between meals is a great way to lift off food deposits and bacteria left in your teeth whilst boosting the amount of saliva in your mouth.

Other general tips:

Limit snacks between your meals. The more frequently you eat, the less time you give for your mouth to naturally neutralise the levels of acid formed after eating sugary or starchy products. If you are to snack between meals, try to choose something nutritious that is low in sugar and starch such as raw fibrous fruit and vegetables, or grainy crackers, or cheese. Also consider chewing gum to increase the flow of saliva and help flush out any deposits of food and acid that has been formed.

Drink lots of water! Water with fluoride plays a great hand in preventing tooth decay. Drinking water helps to maintain optimum levels of saliva in your mouth, restore levels of fluoride and also wash away any lingering bits of food that might feed the bacteria present. If drinking bottled water, choose options that have fluoride added.

Eat sugary foods within meals. If you were to eat sugary foods, try to include them within large meals. The many ingredients included in a meal can help dilute the amounts of sugar concentrated in the sweeter ingredients, reduce acid production and help rinse them from your mouth.

Brush your at least twice a day. Ideally, you would brush your teeth half an hour after consuming sugary foods as well, but brushing morning and night is a strong component of every personal oral health routine.
Floss at least once a day. Flossing helps remove deposits of food that build up in your mouth from a day’s consumption that your toothbrush can’t reach. Getting rid of these deposits reduces the amount of plaque that builds up in your teeth.

Regular visits to the dentist. Even with healthy daily practices for caring your teeth, plaque will continue to form. We simply can’t remove everything from your teeth and even despite your best efforts, things get overlooked. The best way to top off your oral health care is to ensure you visit your dentist and hygienist at least twice a year for a clean. Not only will your hygienist clean anything that may have built up over time, they can assess the overall health of your mouth and recommend the best practices or diet for you.