You probably know that what you eat affects everything from energy levels to heart health. It’s likely no surprise, then, that your diet also impacts dental health. Too many sugary foods, for example, can cause cavities. Diet is important in any situation, of course, but it’s become especially prevalent during this quarantine and work-from-home period. It’s all too easy for occasional work breaks to become snack breaks when your desk is 10 feet away from the kitchen (this author is guilty as charged). And comfort food can become even more tempting under the stress of current events.
Don’t get us wrong — there’s nothing wrong with an occasional treat. Too many, however, can harm your teeth and gums. By understanding how diet and dental health intertwine, you can make smart decisions and form strong habits that last well after the pandemic passes.
How diet affects your dental health
You’ve heard it time and time again from your dentist — and probably from your parents when growing up — sugar is bad for your teeth. After encountering sugar, the bacteria in your mouth release acid1 that forms plaque, which can attack and deteriorate the enamel on your teeth. As enamel wears down, your teeth are more susceptible to decay. Sugar isn’t the only food that causes this reaction, however. Carbohydrates and starches, such as bread, pasta and chips, also release acids that trigger tooth decay. Further, foods such as tomatoes, lemons, limes, pickles, and grapefruit and beverages including wine, beer, orange juice, and soda are high in acidity2,3 and can wear down enamel.
The impact of diet doesn’t stop with your teeth; it plays a role in your gum health, too. Your gums need specific nutrients, such as vitamin C, vitamin D, calcium, and iron4, to fight infection. Without them, it may leave you susceptible to gum disease5, which can lead to bleeding, inflammation, and cavities if it isn’t treated.
Fortunately, your mouth has a natural defense against potentially damaging foods and drinks: saliva. It not only neutralizes the bacteria in your mouth, but it also contains minerals that repair early enamel damage and tooth decay6.
And, of course, not all food is bad for your dental health! Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and stimulate saliva production, which can neutralize acids and clean your teeth. Dairy products such as milk and yogurt provide calcium that can restore minerals and enamel7. Nuts are also good sources of nutrition that can fight against tooth decay8. One study9 found that a diet low in carbohydrates and rich in vitamin A and C, fiber, and omega-3 fatty acids can reduce gum inflammation — a symptom of gum disease.
You also don’t have to entirely avoid the foods that can harm your teeth. By adopting healthy habits, you can mitigate damage from sugary or acidic foods.
Helpful habits to adopt
The most obvious steps you can take are brushing for two minutes twice per day and flossing once a day. But there are even more healthy habits that can make a difference for your mouth, such as:
- Drink plenty of water: Staying hydrated provides your body with essential nutrients, and it also rinses leftover food, acids, and bacteria out of your mouth. Depending on the source, water may contain fluoride that provides extra protection for your teeth10.
- Eat sugary or acidic foods with a meal: Saliva production is triggered by chewing, which happens most during meals11. If you eat sugary or acidic foods, try to do so along with your meal to let saliva neutralize and wash away the bacteria in your mouth.
- Wait an hour after eating to brush your teeth: Brushing after you eat is a good idea — just try to wait the right amount of time. When you wait for an hour after finishing your food, saliva has time to neutralize acids and repair early enamel damage12. Brushing too soon may wear away enamel that your saliva didn’t have time to fully repair.
- Avoid emotional eating: It’s sometimes easy to turn to comfort foods when you’re stressed, which may harm your teeth and gums and lead to overeating. Having healthy snacks on hand, being mindful of portion sizes, and finding other outlets for stress — such as exercise — can help you curb this13. HelpGuide.org offers more insight into emotional eating that you may find useful.
Nutrition plays a crucial role in your dental health that you shouldn’t overlook. By establishing a strong diet and routine, you can maintain a healthy mouth during quarantine and beyond!