Food friends and foes for your teeth

If it’s true that you are what you eat, then it's particularly true for your teeth and gums. When you drink sugary beverages and eat starchy foods, you’re not only feeding yourself – you’re also feeding the plaque that can cause problems in your mouth.

And while some foods invite tooth decay, others help combat plaque buildup and help keep teeth and gums healthy. Learn more about the foods to seek out — and some to avoid — to help keep your smile sparkling.

The “good guys” in fighting tooth decay

  • Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables: Foods with fiber stimulate saliva flow, which is a natural defense against cavities. Not only does saliva wash away food particles and clean your mouth, about 20 minutes after you eat something, saliva begins to neutralize the acids attacking your teeth. Crisp fruits and vegetables like apples, carrots and celery not only help stimulate saliva flow, but also help clean plaque from teeth and freshen breath.
  • Cheese, milk, plain yogurt and other dairy products: The calcium, phosphates and vitamin D in cheese, milk and other dairy products are important minerals for the health of your teeth. Your teeth are made mostly of calcium, and without enough in your diet, you risk developing tooth decay and other problems. An added benefit is that the calcium in these foods mixes with plaque and sticks to teeth, protecting them from acids that cause decay and helping to rebuild tooth enamel on the spot. Worried you won’t get enough calcium because you are allergic to milk or just don’t like the taste? There are many calcium-fortified juices, soy milks and other foods available that can supply as much calcium to your diet as milk does.
  • Sugarless chewing gum: Chewing sugar-free gum after meals and snacks can help rinse harmful acid off your teeth to help you preserve tooth enamel. But be sure it’s sugarless! Chewing gum containing sugar may actually increase your chances of developing a cavity. Sugarless gum containing xylitol, which has been shown to have decay-preventive qualities, may even have an added benefit. Research indicates that xylitol most likely inhibits the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the oral bacteria that cause cavities.
  • Green and black teas: Tea contains compounds that interact with plaque and either kill or suppress bacteria, preventing them from growing or producing tooth-attacking acid. This not only helps to prevent cavities, but also reduces inflammation and the chances of gum disease. Depending on the type of water you use to brew your tea, a cup of tea can also be a source of fluoride. Just remember: don’t add sugar to your tea.
  • Water with fluoride: Fluoridated drinking water, or any product you make with fluoridated water, helps your teeth. This includes powdered juices (as long as they don’t contain a lot of sugar) and dehydrated soups. Bottled drinking water may not contain as much fluoride as water from the tap, so if this is your main source of water, be sure that you use fluoridated toothpaste and ask your dentist about fluoride supplementation.

The “bad guys” in fighting tooth decay

  • Sugary candies and sweets that stay in your mouth: If you eat sweets, go for those that clear out of your mouth quickly. Those that stick around — lollipops, caramels, jelly beans and hard candies — make it difficult for saliva to wash the sugar away. Snacks like cookies, cakes or other desserts contain a high amount of sugar, which can cause tooth decay. If you eat foods like these, it's best to eat them as dessert after a main meal instead of several times a day between meals. Whenever you eat sweets — in any meal or snack — brush your teeth well with fluoride toothpaste afterward.
  • Starchy, refined carbohydrates: Foods such as chips, bread, pasta or crackers can be as harmful to the teeth as candy. Starches made from white flour are simple carbohydrates and can linger in your mouth and then break down into simple sugars. Bacteria feed on these sugars and produce acid, which causes tooth decay.
  • Carbonated soft drinks: Not only does regular soda contain a high amount of sugar, both regular and diet sodas also contain phosphorous and carbonation, which wear away the enamel on your teeth (causing them to become stained and brown). Many energy drinks and bottled iced teas and lemonades also contain high amounts of sugar and may contain acids that wear away tooth enamel. If you regularly consume soda, you should use a straw to keep it from having too much contact with your teeth.
  • Fruit juice: Although fruit is an important part of a healthy diet, fruit juice can cause problems for your teeth. Whole fruits have fiber and are a less concentrated source of sugar (and sometimes acids). In addition, juices sometimes have sugar added to them, which can be even more damaging to your teeth. If you regularly drink fruit juices, you should use a straw to keep them from having too much contact with your teeth.
  • Lemons, citrus fruits and other acidic foods: It’s OK to eat these kinds of foods, but don’t suck on them or keep them in your mouth for a long period of time. The acidic juice in these foods can erode the enamel of your teeth. Citrus fruits and foods with tomatoes (including pizza, soup and pasta sauce), pickles, honey and wine can all be damaging to your teeth if they are consumed too often or held in the mouth for too long.
Last updated: February 2012

The oral health information on this website is intended for educational purposes only. You should always consult a licensed dentist or other qualified health care professional for any questions concerning your oral health.

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