Let’s hear it for teeth! They help us eat. We love seeing them when people smile, and they chatter when we’re cold. We pay our kids for their baby ones. Despite the phrase “sweet tooth,” they don’t taste anything, and in fact, they aren’t living tissue in the way that bones are. And perhaps the weirdest thing about teeth? They’re the only part of our bodies whose health isn’t looked after by a medical doctor.
Perhaps the most important fact about teeth is that they are tools to help us eat and properly digest our food. They’re key to staying healthy, so it’s important that we take care of them.
No, this isn’t going to be an article just reminding you to brush and floss and visit your dentist twice a year. It’s about something we hear less about (and should hear a lot more about!): nutrition and oral health.
Believe it or not, plant-based eaters have to take special care of their teeth, maybe even more so than meat-eaters. In fact, some dental practices are wary of vegan diets and caution their patients about potential nutrient deficiencies, including vitamin D, B12, calcium, and phosphorus. And this isn’t just a case of anti-vegan bias. Some studies have shown that vegans and vegetarians tend to have worse dental health than omnivores, with a higher risk of dental erosion. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why, but it’s a fact that many vegans and vegetarians replace meat, eggs, and dairy with, among other things, sugary foods and refined carbohydrates, which are associated with cavities and other tooth problems. When it comes to tooth health, junk food vegans are not doing themselves any favors.
But don’t worry! Even though it may take a little more effort for plant-eaters to keep those pearly whites healthy, there’s a lot that you can do. If you know how to take care of your teeth with good dental health habits and eating a diet that keeps your pearly whites happy, you can keep smiling without worry — and have healthy teeth throughout your entire life.
Why Oral Health Matters
The more people understand how their oral health directly influences their overall health, the more likely they are to take better care of their teeth and mouth. Sounds obvious, but researchers in Portugal, Romania, and Sweden went to the trouble of surveying over 800 teenagers to find out that the ones who knew the most about how to take care of their teeth were also most likely to brush daily and visit the dentist yearly. (Someone’s tax dollars at work!)
The most obvious reason you need teeth, aside from showing off your $30,000 gold grill, is to chew your food thoroughly before you swallow it. And the ability to chew is important for your oral — and overall — health. This is because the extent of your ability to chew food will affect your dietary choices (if your molars are shot, you’ll shy away from those foods that require serious backend action) and nutrient intake. Those who can’t chew well will favor softer foods, which are typically more highly processed.
Breaking down food also helps with the digestive process and can support your gut health. The more your teeth and mouth enzymes start the process of turning food into a bolus (a fancy name for the lump of chewed food and saliva at the moment of swallowing), the less work your stomach and intestines will have to do, and the more nutrients you’ll derive from that food. Some nutrients, like nitric oxide, are activated by chewing, so keeping your choppers in working order can protect against cardiovascular disease, too.
Oral Health & Chronic Disease
Good overall health depends on good oral health. Conversely, bad oral health can contribute to disease, and may be a sign of underlying health conditions. Symptoms of diabetes, HIV/AIDs, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s diseases may be amplified by poor oral health.
Additionally, not taking good care of your mouth, gums, and teeth can cause unfriendly bacteria to spread to the rest of your body. This can lead to gastrointestinal disease, as imbalanced oral bacteria can negatively affect the gut microbiome and possibly even the health of your immune defense.
A good example of the link between oral health and overall health is Alzheimer’s disease. Recent research has found that gingivitis bacteria — which lives in the mouth — may be linked to an increased risk for Alzheimer’s. Gingivitis bacteria produces toxic substances called gingipains, which appear to correlate with the elevated brain levels of tau and ubiquitin often found in Alzheimer’s patients. On the other hand, preventing the spread of gingipains in the body has been shown to have an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective effect.
Periodontal (gum) disease is also a potential risk factor for developing cardiovascular disease, including ischemic heart disease, also known as coronary artery disease or a hardening of the arteries. A 2016 study published in BMJ Open looked at 172,630 people with cardiovascular disease and found that tooth loss and gum concerns were correlated with a higher risk for ischemic heart disease. Oral bacteria can also lead to endocarditis, or an infection caused when the bacteria enters the blood and settles in parts of the heart or blood vessels.
Lastly, certain bacteria in your mouth can eventually be introduced into your lungs. This can lead to pneumonia and other respiratory diseases.
OK, I hope you’re at least as convinced as the average Romanian, Portuguese, or Swedish teenager about the importance of taking care of your teeth! If so, you’ll be eager to check out our lifestyle tips — some obvious, and some actually quite surprising — for good dental health.
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5 Lifestyle Tips for Good Dental Health
You can improve your oral hygiene and maintain good dental health with a few simple habits. By practicing these healthy habits on a regular basis, you can significantly improve the health of your mouth, and the rest of your body, to boot.
1. Don’t smoke or use tobacco products.
Smoking cigarettes is one of the top contributors to severe gum disease in the United States and likely around the world. Gum disease is an infection that can ultimately affect the bone structure that supports your teeth and, when it deteriorates severely, can make your teeth fall out.
Early gum disease is called gingivitis, an inflammatory condition in which the bacteria from your teeth get under your gums and cause plaque and tartar to build up on your teeth. Smoking reduces your immune defense, making it more difficult to fight off a gum infection or heal from damage done. In fact, studies show that smokers have twice the risk of developing gum disease than non-smokers. And the risk increases linearly with the amount and frequency of cigarettes smoked. (The use of illegal drugs like cocaine and crystal meth can be even harder on teeth than tobacco, but you probably knew that already.)
2. Brush your teeth regularly.
Many of us are taught to brush our teeth twice a day starting in early childhood, and this remains an important habit throughout life. The American Dental Association (ADA) recommends using a soft-bristled toothbrush to gently brush your teeth, at a 45-degree angle, for approximately two minutes twice per day — and to replace your toothbrush every 3–4 months A good electric toothbrush can make sure you’re hitting the most surface area and at the right angle. In fact, in the largest study ever conducted that compared electric to manual toothbrushes, scientists concluded that people who use an electric toothbrush have healthier gums, less tooth decay, and also keep their teeth for longer. Kyoui makes some excellent sonic toothbrushes. And Oral-B makes the most highly rated electric toothbrush available on Amazon.
While flossing is often ignored, it should be a crucial part of your oral hygiene routine. The ADA recommends flossing once per day, to remove plaque and particles of food that are sitting between teeth and up in your gums that can accumulate and lead to inflammation. Flossing is sort of like weightlifting for your gums, removing potentially harmful germs and building their strength. For specific ADA recommendations for how to floss, see this infographic. Many dental flosses contain problematic chemicals you might not want in your mouth. If you want an organic, vegan, and plastic-free floss, here’s one from Radius.
4. See a dentist.
Your teeth will also benefit from an annual visit to your dentist. Regular dental exams, paired with good oral hygiene habits, can prevent dental diseases. Your dentist can take a comprehensive look in your mouth and identify any problems early on when the treatment for them is likely more effective and less expensive. An annual visit can also help your dentist see if there have been any significant changes in your oral health or structure that need attention.
5. Eat an oral health-supporting diet.
Your mouth is your body’s first point of contact when you eat and drink. It’s the gatekeeper of your digestive system. And as what you eat and drink passes through your mouth, it can impact and leave debris on your teeth and gums. As such, your mouth is one of the first places that signs of a poor diet can be identified. A whole foods, plant-based diet is not only full of nutrients, but low in sugar, low in highly processed carbs, high in fiber, and rich in antioxidants, all of which positively contribute to your health. There’s good evidence that a high-fiber diet can also prevent periodontic (gum) disease.
Eating a diet high in processed, sugary foods, on the other hand, is likely to leave behind substances that promote tooth decay and cavities — especially if you don’t practice good oral hygiene habits like brushing and flossing. Sugar-rich beverages can be especially damaging as they’re essentially a sugar bath for your teeth every time you drink them. Including plenty of plant sources of calcium and phosphorus, important minerals for tooth strength is also a good idea. For instance, calcium-set tofu, calcium-fortified unsweetened plant milks, leafy greens, almonds, beans and lentils, sunflower seeds, and whole grains like quinoa are good sources of these minerals.
There’s some evidence that eating lots of fruits — especially citrus — can wear down the tooth’s enamel and lead to demineralization, essentially, removing some of the minerals from the tooth, weakening it, and potentially leading to cavities and decay. No health body has recommended avoiding fruit to protect teeth, however. Overall, the benefits of eating fruit, especially compared to candy, soda, and other sources of sugar, far outweigh the risks.
Worst Foods and Beverages for Dental Health
While you’re practicing good habits that support your oral health, it’s also important to reduce — or in some cases, eliminate if possible — foods and drinks that promote tooth decay and mouth inflammation.
Some of the worst foods and beverages for dental health include:
- Added sugar: This is most often found in highly refined and processed foods like candy, packaged baked goods, soda, and other sugary drinks. Added sugar can sit on your teeth and gums, accumulate, and increase your risk for cavities and tooth decay.
- Crunchy snacks: Certain snack foods can easily get stuck in your teeth and even cut your gums and increase the risk of bacteria building up in your mouth. Some examples of these types of snacks include chips, popcorn, and pretzels.
- White breads: These types of breads are typically made with refined white flour, which has been stripped of much of its natural fiber and nutritional value. White bread also tends to have higher added sugar content and may be sticky on your teeth. Some examples include bagels, donuts, and white pizza doughs.
- Alcohol: The risk of gum disease and tooth decay are higher in heavy alcohol drinkers. In fact, alcohol abuse is the second most common risk factor in oral cancer.
- Dried fruit: While dried fruits can offer some nutritional benefits, they are sticky and can get caught in your teeth. It’s best to choose fresh or frozen fruit when possible.
- Acidic beverages: Drinks that have a high acidity, like sodas and even fresh-squeezed citrus juices, can wear away the enamel on your teeth and lead to discoloration. While kombucha offers several health benefits, it can also be high in sugar and acidity, and may even be worse for your teeth than soda. As for coffee and tea, both are high in enamel-softening acid. But many studies show that on the whole, green tea is linked to fewer cavities and better periodontal health.
The Only Time You Shouldn’t Brush
After eating or drinking sugary or acidic foods and beverages, it’s a good idea to rinse your mouth with water and/or chew a dental gum or mint that contains the sugar alcohol xylitol, which we’ll cover later. You might be tempted to rush and brush right after eating some acidic food, to get the acid out of your mouth and off your teeth. But don’t do it! This may seem counterintuitive, but you should wait at least 30 minutes to an hour before you brush your teeth because the acid temporarily weakens the enamel. Brushing right after consuming acidic items can actually have a corrosive effect on your teeth.
What About People With Dental Implants or Dentures?
People with dentures and dental implants also should try to avoid the foods listed above, to make sure their dental health stays strong.
Additionally, if you have dental implants or dentures, you may also want to avoid the following:
- Hard, crunchy foods like nuts and seeds, which can get stuck under dentures or damage them. Instead of eating these raw, you can soak or sprout them to make them softer, blend them, or purchase them in the form of nut/seed butters for a more denture-friendly consistency.
- Sticky foods like caramel that can not only promote sugar accumulation but also pull, move, and damage your dentures or implants.
- Raw fruits and veggies that easily get stuck in your teeth, such as celery, apples, and corn on the cob. These can get stuck and dislodge dentures. Instead, try adding celery or apples to a smoothie, eat apples in the form of applesauce, or cut the corn off the cob before eating.
If you have dentures, it’s also important to regularly remove food particles from them by brushing them with toothpaste and a soft-bristled toothbrush. For optimal oral hygiene, brush and clean your gums and tongue as well.
Nutrients That Support Your Teeth
Eating a healthy diet is key for supporting your overall health, as well as the health of your teeth and gums.
Some of the most important nutrients for oral health include:
Your body needs vitamin D to absorb calcium properly and keep your skeletal system and teeth strong. Gingivitis, periodontitis, and tooth loss have been associated with low vitamin D levels, especially among pregnant and menopausal women. Vitamin D deficiency is correlated with reduced bone density, increased risk of osteoporosis, and lowered immunity. It can also lead to periodontal disease.
A key mineral for strengthening your teeth, calcium protects your enamel from cavities and decay. We often hear about dairy products like cow’s milk being good sources of calcium, but many non-dairy foods are as well. Some of the best plant sources of calcium include seeds, beans, lentils, almonds, whole soy foods, low-oxalate leafy greens like kale and bok choy, orange, figs, and broccoli raab.
Like vitamin D, phosphorus supports calcium in the building of strong bones and teeth. Most of the phosphorus in your body is found in your bones and teeth. Maintaining your phosphorus levels helps keep your teeth strong, as this mineral naturally protects and rebuilds tooth enamel. Beans, lentils, nuts, and whole grains are good plant-based sources.
Folate (vitamin B9) and vitamin B12 appear to be especially important in the maintenance of oral health. Research has found that B9 and B12 can help inhibit gingival overgrowth, especially among smokers, reducing the risk of cavities. And a deficiency of vitamin B12 is strongly linked with dental problems. Additionally, in one 2009 study, toothpaste that contained vitamins B3 and B5 was found to significantly reduce plaque buildup compared to a toothpaste without the added vitamins.
Vitamin C is a water-soluble vitamin known to play a substantial role in immunity. One of the best-known examples of vitamin C and oral health is when British sailors in the 15th and 18th centuries sailed the seas without access to citrus fruits and other fresh produce. They ended up developing scurvy, or vitamin C deficiency that causes gum ulcerations and tooth loss, among other symptoms When the sailors were provided citrus fruits like oranges and lemons, the incidence of scurvy was drastically reduced, showing a direct link. Getting enough vitamin C can also reduce the incidence of gingivitis and associated oral inflammation. Find out more about vitamin C, including food sources and the pros and cons of supplementation, here.
Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin that is stored in the liver and used to form and maintain healthy teeth, skeletal and soft tissues, and skin. It also helps keep your body’s mucus membranes healthy and prevents dry mouth. Severely low levels of vitamin A are associated with periodontitis. The body converts the carotenoid beta carotene, found in numerous yellow and orange foods, to vitamin A.
Although only a few clinical studies have been conducted so far, the results to date suggest that probiotics could be useful in preventing and treating oral infections, including dental caries, periodontal disease, and halitosis. Life Extension makes a probiotic lozenge that may promote overall oral health (linked here).
Best Foods & Beverages for Dental Health
Incorporating a wide variety of whole foods and healthy beverages in your diet is one of the most effective ways to get the nutrients you need to support your dental health.
While statistics show that vegetarians and vegans tend to have a higher incidence of some forms of dental disease, opting for nutrient-rich alternatives to meat and dairy products, instead of loading up on sugars and other refined carbs, can help make sure you get the nutrition you need while protecting your oral health on a plant-based diet.
Some of the best animal-free foods and beverages for your teeth include:
Mushrooms appear to have anti-cavity properties, especially shiitake mushrooms. Research associates this with antimicrobial compounds in shiitake mushrooms like erythritol, copalic acid, adenosine, and carvacrol. Extracts from shiitake mushrooms have antibacterial characteristics and may even change the cellular environment in the mouth in a way that prevents cavities.
Garlic and Onions
These are part of the Allium family of plants, which is known to be high in phytochemicals that may be used to inhibit bacterial growth and treat a variety of ailments, including those that threaten oral health. For instance, garlic has long been studied for its antibacterial properties. And some studies have found that oral application of garlic can inhibit the growth of bacteria that causes gingivitis and cavities.
Berries with darker pigments contain polyphenols that may lower the risk of tooth decay, plaque, and gum disease. Best of all, these types of polyphenols provide other benefits to your oral health. A 2019 study published in the European Journal of Oral Science found that between extracts of cranberry, blueberry, and strawberry, and a combination of the three, cranberry was the most effective in inhibiting growth of bacteria that cause cavities.
If you’ve ever bitten into a juicy pear, it’s no surprise that pears have a high water content that dilutes their natural sugar content. Plus, their crunchy texture and fiber can help to prevent particles and bacteria from sticking to your teeth and gums. Pears are high in vitamin C but lower in acidity than their citrus counterparts.
A 2017 study published in Nutrients used food frequency questionnaires to evaluate the links between the frequency of fruit and vegetable consumption and oral health among Japanese participants. The researchers found that those who consumed fruits and vegetables most frequently, including dark leafy greens, had the best oral health outcomes.
Sweet potatoes, like many other orange fruits and veggies, are an excellent source of beta carotene, a carotenoid that your body turns into vitamin A. In fact, eating high amounts of food rich in carotenoids is associated with a lower risk of mouth cancer.
This group of veggies — which includes foods like broccoli, cabbage, kale, and cauliflower — is rich in compounds that your body turns into sulforaphane, which has been found to help prevent oral cancer.
Research has found that a high intake of dietary fiber is associated with a lower risk of periodontal disease. In addition to fruits and veggies, one of the best, most widely consumed sources of fiber are whole grains, such as quinoa, 100% whole wheat, oats, millet, amaranth, and teff.
Drinking water helps keep you hydrated, of course. And it also helps flush out germs and food particles that otherwise sit in your mouth, while also preventing dry gums that could lead to tooth decay. Many sources of water — especially tap water — have been supplemented with fluoride, presumably with the intention to help strengthen teeth. This is a highly controversial topic. But for more information about fluoride in water, see this article.
Green tea is rich in antioxidants, which may help reduce the risk of oral cancer. It’s also full of catechins and tannins, compounds with antibacterial properties. Additionally, green tea may help reduce the bacteria in your mouth that can lead to cavities, bad breath, and periodontal disease. An interesting 2019 study examined the effectiveness of using herbal mouthwash, comparing a steeping black tea and green tea solution, in reducing the amount of Streptococcus mutans, a bacteria in the mouth that can lead to cavities. The authors found that using a steeping green tea mouthwash was more effective than black tea.
Xylitol is a low-calorie sugar alcohol that has an alkalizing effect in the mouth. Because there’s so much evidence that xylitol has anti-cavity properties, it’s often added to sugar-free oral care products, chewing gums, mints, candies, and mints. In fact, studies have found that xylitol can starve the bad bacteria in your mouth while leaving the friendly bacteria alone. Animal studies show that xylitol may increase the absorption of calcium, helping to strengthen your teeth. And Human studies have found that replacing sugar in the diet with xylitol, or just adding xylitol to the diet, can reduce tooth decay and cavities by 30-85%. I personally like to have a few xylitol-containing mints every day. I have a bit of a kombucha habit (even though I know it’s not great for my teeth!), but I always follow it with a swish of water and a xylitol mint to counteract any residual acidity.
Recipes for Dental Health
You’ll be smiling from ear to ear knowing that you’re taking great care of your gums, teeth, and entire oral cavity by eating some of the best foods for dental health. Start your day with the Matcha Oatmeal; snack on Vegan Onion Dip; use Blueberry-Balsamic Walnut Dressing on a healthy salad, and finish off the day with the Thai Vegetable Stew sprinkled with Mushroom “Bacon” Toppers. From your mouth to your belly, your body will be thanking you for all of the wholesome foods.
1. Matcha Oatmeal
Green tea is packed with antioxidants, some of which may help reduce the risk of oral cancer and fight off the unwanted bacteria in your mouth. Plus, it tastes delicious in oatmeal! Start your morning off right with a satiating whole-grain, fiber-packed bowl of it. For a quadruple toxin-screened organic matcha, check out Pique Tea’s Sun Goddess Matcha (linked here).
2. Vegan Onion Dip
You’ll get dental health bonus points for this appetizer if you choose cruciferous vegetables to serve alongside it. Onions and garlic provide antimicrobial properties while cruciferous vegetables bring plenty of disease-fighting sulforaphane. Plus, this dairy-free onion dip is delicious!
3. Blueberry-Balsamic Walnut Dressing
Blueberries are not only delicious eaten by themselves as a healthy snack, but they can also be used in savory toppings like this perfectly balanced dressing. You might notice that you’re smiling, not just because the flavor of blueberry, balsamic, and walnut with a touch of tarragon is heavenly, but also because you’re supporting healthy gums and teeth!
4. Thai Vegetable Stew
This recipe has all lots of ingredients to support dental health — sweet potatoes, onions, garlic, leafy greens, and water. Not only is this colorful and aromatic stew going to keep you warm in cooler months, but it’s also going to help your smile shine bright!
5. Mushroom “Bacon” Topper
Unlike traditional bacon, shiitake mushrooms are low in calories and packed with nutrition, providing vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting compounds. And, as you now know, they will also promote dental health! This is “bacon” we can certainly stand behind.
A Healthy Mouth is a Healthy You
Taking care of your teeth and oral health is an important factor to maintaining overall health. But through a healthy diet and lifestyle — eating foods that promote oral health, and practicing habits like regular brushing and flossing — you can enjoy healthy chompers and a bright smile long into the future.
Tell us in the comments:
- Did you learn anything surprising about how to take care of your teeth?
- What are some of your favorite cavity-fighting foods?
- What are some ways that you can change your lifestyle and/or diet to improve your dental health?
Feature image: iStock.com/AaronAmat