Every food you eat or beverage you drink comes in contact with your teeth, which means those choices continually impact the health of your teeth and gums. Many foods in a typical American diet — from sugary, processed foods and drinks to those that are highly acidic — can actually eat away at your tooth enamel, causing cavities. So it’s important to focus on eating healthy foods that also help promote oral health.
That means moving away from sugary, sticky, and acidic foods and drinks. Instead you’ll want to focus on eating a well-balanced diet that boosts your intake of tooth-friendly nutrients such as calcium.
With these healthy eating and drinking guidelines, you can reduce your risk of enamel erosion and cavities, and keep your smile looking healthier, longer.
Skip sweets. Cavities have long been linked with a diet rich in sugary, sticky foods as well as poor oral health habits, according to the American Dental Association (ADA). So it’s important to limit sugary foods and drinks. That doesn’t just mean candy, cookies, and cake. Sodas, some sports and energy drinks, and even juices are high in sugar. You might also be surprised to find high amounts of sugar in certain brands of spaghetti sauce, cereal, and canned fruit, so it’s important to check the sugar content in everything you eat or drink.
Eat non-stick foods. Sticky foods like raisins, honey, and molasses, along with starchy foods like bread and potato chips, can cling to the surface of your teeth and increase the risk of cavities, says Ginger Hultin, RD, in practice in Seattle, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND). Eaten in moderation, with good oral health practices such as brushing and flossing regularly, these foods are acceptable in small amounts.
Watch out for acidic foods. While eating fresh produce like oranges and tomatoes is an important part of a healthy diet, citrus fruits and certain other types of fruit are acidic, which can affect your tooth enamel. Try eating them with a meal — as opposed to on their own — so they’re less likely to harm your teeth. Keep in mind that acidic fruits in other forms (think lemon juice and cranberry jelly) are still acidic.
Beware of teeth-staining drinks. Certain drinks, like coffee, tea, and red wine, are likely to stain your teeth. That’s because they contain color pigments called chromogens, which attach to and stain tooth enamel. That doesn’t mean you can never enjoy a morning cup of coffee or a glass of wine with dinner — just drink plenty of water with it to help wash away these tooth-staining properties.
Eat a balanced diet. The ADA recommends eating a well-balanced diet that includes vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean protein such as fish or beans, and dairy to help keep your teeth healthy. Eating a variety of these healthy foods can help you get the nutrients you need to promote oral health.
Aim for anti-inflammatory foods. An anti-inflammatory diet correlates with healthier gums and fewer lost teeth, according to research published in June 2017 in the journal Clinical Nutrition. The AND says certain foods, such as saturated fats and refined foods, contribute to inflammation. “Participants in our study were considered to follow a pro-inflammatory diet if their diet was particularly rich in carbohydrates, trans-fat, or had overall high caloric intake,” says lead author and periodontist Georgios A. Kotsakis, DDS, MS, an assistant professor in the department of periodontics at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Incorporate healthy fats. Healthy fats are an important component of an anti-inflammatory diet that promotes oral health. The AND recommends choosing heart-healthy fats such as olive oil, avocado, and fatty fish like salmon. Dr. Kotsakis emphasizes the importance of including these types of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Work with your dentist or a dietitian if you aren’t sure how to incorporate healthy fats into your diet.
Get enough calcium. People who get the recommended daily amount of calcium are less likely to develop gum disease, according to a study published in February 2016 in the journal Public Health Nutrition. Adults should get at least 1,000 to1,300 milligrams of calcium daily, depending on their age, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements. Along with milk and other dairy products, foods that are high in calcium include beans, almonds, and leafy greens, the ADA says.
Drink water. If you’re thirsty, reach for a glass of water. “Plain water is best to protect the teeth and for so many other health-supporting benefits,” says Hultin. “Other beverages that aren’t sweetened are safe for teeth, including unsweetened coffee and tea.” If you do indulge in a sweet beverage, chase it with a drink of water — this is one way to wash some of the sugar off your teeth.
Take breaks. Try not to eat or drink constantly. Your mouth needs breaks to process what you’re putting in it. “Spacing meals and beverages apart by at least two hours reduces risk of tooth decay,” Hultin says. The ADA explains that your mouth produces more saliva during a meal, which can help wash away food particles, than it does in between meals. But ongoing snacking — especially with snack choices that are bad for your teeth, like potato chips or candy — could leave residual particles on your teeth.
Chew sugar-free gum. If you’re having a hard time sticking to a no-snacking policy, try sugar-free chewing gum. “Chewing sugarless gum after a meal or snack reduces the risk of cavities,” Hultin says. This is because chewing gum stimulates saliva and moves the materials that can lead to tooth decay. The ADA says the increased saliva also adds calcium and phosphate to the mouth, which makes tooth enamel stronger. You’ll also get the added benefit of fresh-smelling breath.