Oral Health & Nutrition: Dietary Tips For Preventing Cavities

Monday, October 23, 2006 - 2:57pm

By Michèle Turcotte, MS, RD/LDN

Just like the rest of the body, the teeth, bones and soft tissues of the mouth require a well-balanced diet. A nutritious diet provides the minerals, vitamins, and other nutrients essential for healthy teeth and gums and can help protect teeth from decay.

How teeth decay

Colonies of bacteria constantly coat your teeth with a sticky film called plaque. When you put food in your mouth, it interacts with the germs and bacteria that live there. Although the leading cause of tooth decay is sucrose (sugar), starchy food also contributes. These foods mix with amylase (an enzyme found in saliva); if they’re not brushed away immediately, plaque combines with these sugars and starches, resulting in an acid bath that erodes enamel. The longer these foods linger in the mouth the greater the potential for damage and tooth decay1.

Preventative foods and nutrients

  • Fluoride. Fluoride reduces the rate of developing cavities by as much as 60%. To a large extent, cavities can be prevented through drinking fluoridated water, beverages made with fluoridated water, tea, and some fish, as well as many brands of toothpaste and mouthwash. Fluoride supplements are available for those who don't have access to fluoridated drinking water. It is wise to check to see if the water supply in your area is fluoridated. However, excess consumption of fluoride can cause mottling of the teeth.
  • Calcium. Calcium is important for oral health and vitamin D is needed to help the body absorb calcium. Low-fat dairy products are an excellent source of calcium but fortified soy beverages, canned salmon/sardines (with bones), almonds, and dark green leafy vegetables are calcium-rich foods as well. Vitamin D is found in milk, fortified soy beverages, margarine, and fatty fish (such as salmon). The body also manufactures it when the skin is exposed to the sun. Phosphorus (found in meat, fish, and eggs) and magnesium (found in whole grains, spinach, and bananas) help to form tooth enamel. Vitamin A helps build strong bones and teeth (good sources of beta carotene—which the body turns into vitamin A—include orange-colored fruits and vegetables²).
  • Fruit. Although dried fruit is a healthy food, it can contribute to tooth decay because of its high sugar content and its tendency to cling to teeth. Similarly, unsweetened fruit juice isn’t great for teeth because it is both acidic and high in sugars. However, fresh fruit is much less likely to cause problems because chewing stimulates saliva flow. Saliva decreases mouth acidity and helps to wash away food particles. Sometimes referred to as nature's toothbrush, apples increase saliva flow and reduce the build-up of cavity-causing bacteria¹.

Serious health complications of tooth decay

A chronically dry mouth also contributes to decay. Because saliva flow slows during sleep, going to bed without brushing the teeth is especially harmful. Gingivitis, a common condition that causes the gums to redden, swell, and bleed, is typically caused by a build-up of plaque. Treatment requires the removal of plaque by a dental professional. Untreated, gingivitis can lead to periodontitis, an advanced infection of the gums that causes teeth to fall out. Studies have shown a link between poor oral health and heart disease. Bleeding gums (which can be caused by a vitamin C deficiency) provide an entry port for bacteria or viruses which can cause heart problems³.

The best defense is a good diet

Be sure that your diet is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables. Hard, fibrous, raw vegetables—such as celery or carrots—stimulate the gums. Protect your teeth by concluding meals with anti-caries foods, such as aged cheeses. Chewing sugarless gum stimulates the flow of saliva, which decreases acid and flushes out food particles. Rinsing your mouth and brushing your teeth after eating are important strategies to prevent cavities. While healthy eating habits and consuming certain nutrients are good ways to prevent cavities, a regular dental regime is essential in maintaining healthy teeth and gums.

1.   Foods that are good for your teeth

  • Calcium-rich foods, such as low-fat dairy products
  • Fresh fruits and vegetables (for vitamins A and C)
  • Water and tea, which are good sources of fluoride

2.   Foods that you should limit

  • Dried fruits and other sticky foods that lodge between the teeth
  • Snacking between meals

3.   Foods to avoid

  • Sweet drinks and snacks
  • Regular sipping of acidic drinks

For more information on cavities in kids see the following article from TheDietChannel: Childhood Cavities: 5 Ways to give Your Child a Health Smile.

¹ Touger-Decker R, van Loveren C. “Sugars and dental caries.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:881.

² Moynihan P, Petersen PE. “Diet, nutrition & the prevention of dental diseases.” Public Health Nutr. 2004;7(1A):201–26.

³ Rugg-Gunn A, Nunn JH. “Diet and dental caries.” Nutrition, Diet and Oral Health. London: Oxford University Press; 1999:27–58.