“An apple a day keeps the doctor away;” and by doctor, I mean dentist. While the ADA recommends dental cleanings at least twice yearly, your diet can contribute to dental health between those cleanings.
Similar to an apple a day, are you familiar with your dentist admonishing your intake of sweets? While it’s easy to link sweets to the deterioration of tooth enamel and formation of painful cavities, it’s actually not that straightforward. Instead of the sugar itself being harmful, it’s the bacteria that consume that sugar as fuel. Our mouths, like our guts, are full of bacteria. These microorganisms use the sugar (sucrose) in fruit juice drinks, soda, pastries for fuel. As part of that process, they secrete acid, which in turn destroys enamel.
Not all sugars are created equal (so slow down on cutting the fruit). Studies show that sucrose, such as that in high fructose corn syrup, is more acidogenic than lactose (found in milk, including breast milk). So, step one to improved dental health? Ditch the refined carbs, which includes things like candy and chips. Chips in particular have been shown to stick to teeth longer, making them readily available food for acid producing bacteria, and thus, cavities. Focus on whole grains. Less fuel for the bacteria to ferment, more satisfying fuel for your cells.
Though we can’t totally rid our mouths of bacteria, we can give them less fuel. We can also displace them by keeping our salivary glands stimulated. Saliva helps to reduce and remove sugar from our mouths. Saliva has a neutralizing effect, meaning it works to “cancel out” the acidic compounds that destroy our teeth. So how do we get more saliva? CHEW. Foods that require lots of chewing (or “mastication” if you’re fancy) help to stimulate the salivary glands, in turn dislodging plaque and harmful acids. Well, what foods make you chew? Think high fiber foods like vegetables, raw spinach, celery.
Healthy gums contribute to healthy teeth. Gums (or gingiva) are made of connective tissue. Keeping this tissue healthy is a major part of gum health. Nutrients associated with gum health include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C and vitamin D. Each of these nutrients have anti-inflammatory properties. Omega-3 fatty acids were actually shown to reduce gingivitis markers in patients. Maintaining healthy gums means fruits and vegetables for vitamin C (e.g. citrus, strawberries), dairy for vitamin D. The richest sources of omega-3s, like DHA and EPA, are fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, etc.) If you’re plant based (or not), add sunflower seeds, kidney beans, sesame seas and chickpeas.
In a section of its own, we include ginger. Ginger has multiple benefits when it comes to dental and oral health. Not only does it have anticariogenic properties (aka no cavities), it is antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, anti-plaque and anti-oral cancer. (Perhaps it’s some ginger a day keeps the dentist away.) Incorporating ginger could mean teas with fresh ginger root, adding ginger to your balanced-protein packed smoothies and/or using ginger as flavoring in recipes (think ginger glazed salmon). In need of a recipe? Try out this carrot ginger soup!
It has been engrained that dairy products are critical for bone health in children due to calcium and fortification with vitamin D. Though our window of opportunity for maximum bone mineralization closes after adolescence, calcium remains an important mineral throughout adulthood. Though we do not continue to increase mineralization or “build” bone or tooth enamel, if we have inadequate calcium stores our bodies may pull from bone or enamel to complete vital needs and cellular processes. Reduced intake of calcium has been linked to increased risk of periodontal disease and decreased density of the alveolar bone (part of the jaw bone that holds our teeth). The takeaway? Mooing for strong bones is not just for toddlers – adults need their calcium and vitamin D for bone and tooth maintenance, too.
Back to that apple – hard fruits such as these are also beneficial for tooth and gum health. Taking it a step further, apples contain a compound called malic acid. Malic acid, which has a tart taste, helps to stimulate saliva production. A pharmaceutical form is actually used to treat dry mouth. In addition to saliva production, concentrated forms of malic acid from apples and strawberries has been shown to have teeth whitening properties. So maybe there is some truth to the apple a day keeping the dentist away? Well, when it comes to teeth whitening, at least.
Having a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and foods rich in calcium and vitamin D are important components of oral health. Enjoy fruits as your sweets, instead of sticky, refined carbohydrates such as candy, chips, pastries, which are likely to contain more sucrose, and a feeding frenzy for oral bacteria. Include ginger as a spice for taste and oral health benefits. Chew those fruits and veggies (maybe sometimes have them raw for some extra jaw exercise and saliva production?), and don’t forget that calcium counts, too.