Eat for your teeth

How you eat affects your oral health

An apple a day keeps the dentist away—if you munch quickly.

A nutritionist at Tufts School of Dental Medicine says that how we eat, rather than what we eat, plays a bigger role in oral health. Health professionals have known for a long time that sugar intake is a big risk factor for tooth decay, but eating habits also play a significant role in oral health. For example, slowly sipping soda or juice all day could be worse than eating a candy bar, because research shows that the longer sugar stays in contact with teeth, the greater the risk for cavities.

Tooth decay starts when bacteria, which live in plaque on teeth, feed off the carbohydrates in food and produce acid in the mouth, which erodes the tooth enamel and causes decay.

For years, sugary foods have been the designated culprits for poor dental reports, but all foods can affect oral health. Foods high in carbohydrates (baked goods and candy) or acid (soda, citrus fruits and fruit juices) present the greatest risk to dental health. There are a number of low-acid nutrients that reduce the risk of a particular food, such as protein, fat, phosphorous and calcium. These low-acid nutrients prevent acid build-up in the mouth, resulting in less tooth decay. Foods like milk and nuts are low-risk foods, not only because they are low in sugar and high in protein, calcium and phosphorous, but also because of their non-sticky texture.

"Munch on snacks that are less tooth decay-promoting like low-fat cheeses, raw vegetables, crunchy fruits, popcorn, nuts and artificially sweetened beverages," suggests Carole A. Palmer, associate professor and co-chair of the Division of Nutrition and Preventive Dentistry at the dental school.

Palmer offers this advice for maintaining good oral health:

Limit snacking: Although eating a very sugary meal is not considered healthful, eating sugary foods rapidly and infrequently may curtail the production of caries. "Keep [carbohydrate-dense] foods in contact with your teeth as little as possible," advises Palmer. She recommends eating as few snacks as possible and drinking sugar-laden beverages with meals, rather than sipping them slowly throughout the day.

Eat more fruits, vegetables and high-protein snacks: Fruits and vegetables are not only low in sugar, but are also high in water and fiber, which lessen the effects of sugar on teeth. Furthermore, unlike carbohydrates, foods high in protein and fat, such as milk, nuts and cheese, do not cause tooth decay.

Avoid sticky foods: These foods are a tooth's worst enemy because they are in contact with the teeth longer. Although grapes and raisins are both healthy fruits, raisins are more harmful to teeth than their fresh fruit counterparts, because they are stickier and can sneak into tooth crevices.

Enjoy high-protein appetizers: Eating certain foods before or after a meal or snack could minimize the effect that carbohydrates have on acid production in the mouth. For example, eating low-fat cheese before sweets limits this chemical change.