Sugar & Your Teeth: How Your Diet Impacts Your Dental Health

Sugar & Your Teeth: How Your Diet Impacts Your Dental Health
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Sugar & Your Teeth: How Your Diet Impacts Your Dental HealthClinical Content Reviewed by Dr. Jay Khorsandi, DDS
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Table of Contents

  1. How Nutrition Affects Oral Health
  2. The Worst Foods for Your Teeth
  3. What Foods Cause Decay?
  4. Which Foods & Drinks Cause Erosion?
  5. Dental Problems from a High-sugar Diet
  6. The Best Foods for Your Teeth
  7. The Relationship Between Oral Health, Diet & Nutrition
  8. Sugary Snacking & Dental Health
  9. How to Reduce the Risk of Cavities
  10. References

The food you eat not only impacts your physical and mental health; it also affects your dental health. Eating a diet rich in the right nutrients can boost your immune system and keep your gums and teeth healthy.

Sugar, on the other hand, is a main culprit in tooth decay. Eating a diet high in sugar significantly increases your risk for developing cavities.

Your oral health, diet, and nutrition have a bidirectional relationship. The proper diet and nutrition can keep your mouth healthy, and how healthy your mouth is dictates how the nutrients are absorbed.

A balanced and nutritious diet low in refined sugars can improve your oral and overall health and keep your teeth healthy.

How nutrition affects oral health

Balanced nutrition is vital for healthy teeth and jaw growth during development and throughout life. Diet has a huge impact on the mouth, the World Health Organization (WHO) explains.

An unhealthy diet and poor nutrition can lead to a variety of oral health issues, such as these:

  • Increased risk for tooth decay and cavities
  • Dental erosion
  • Mouth sores and infections
  • Raised rate of gingivitis and gum disease
  • Oral cancer

Maintaining good oral hygiene involves eating a nutritious and balanced diet along with regular dental visits and daily brushing and flossing.

The worst foods for your teeth

Food plays a role in dental health in a variety of ways, both internally and externally. The right nutrients can support healthy gums and teeth by ensuring necessary minerals are in place, and growth and maintenance are supported from the inside.

From the outside, certain foods are more apt to stick to your teeth. The acids can react with the bacteria in the mouth, causing plaque to form and the acids to attack the teeth, increasing the risk for gum disease, tooth decay, and dental erosion.

These are some of the worst foods for your teeth:

  • Sticky candies, sour candy, and sweets
  • Starchy foods, such as soft bread, pasta, crackers, and potato chips
  • Carbonated, sugary soft drinks
  • Sports drinks
  • Citrus and fruits that are highly acidic, including lemons, limes, tomatoes, and grapefruit
  • Coffee
  • Wine and alcohol
  • Pickles
  • Spicy foods and those that dry out the mouth
  • Chewing ice

What foods cause decay?

Dental cavities are some of the most common dental issues, impacting nearly 80 percent of the world’s population. Free sugars are the biggest cause of dental caries (cavities). Sugar contained in sweets, candies, pastries, and sodas interacts with bacteria in the mouth, creating an acid that attacks the enamel of the teeth.

Tooth decay occurs when the bacteria in the plaque (the sticky film that forms on your teeth) reacts with food or drinks to form acids that wear away the healthy outer layer of your teeth, the enamel. This can cause holes, or cavities, to form on your teeth.

Plaque starts to form quickly after eating. If left on your teeth, the risk for tooth decay increases. Diets that are high in sugar have an elevated risk for decay.

Which foods & drinks cause erosion?

Dental erosion is caused when the enamel on the teeth is eaten away by foods and drinks that are high in acid content. This can include sugars and starchy foods that turn into sugars as they break down.

Once your enamel is worn away, it cannot be replaced. Dental erosion can cause tooth sensitivity, discoloration, and an increased risk for tooth decay and cavities.

In addition to sugary foods and drinks, additional beverages and foods that can cause dental erosion include:

  • Soft drinks. Even if they are sugar-free, sodas and sports drinks often contain carbonation, and the fizz heightens the acid level.
  • Beverages containing citrus flavorings like lemon, orange, or lime.
  • Dried fruits. They are sticky and can remain on your teeth too long, allowing the acids to wear them down.
  • Tomatoes and citrus fruits, which are highly acidic.
  • Sour candies, which are also very acidic.

Dental & oral health problems from a high-sugar diet

WHO recommends that children and adults stick to consuming less than 10 percent of free sugars as part of their energy intake. A recommendation of less than 5 percent, which equates to 6 teaspoons, is even better.

Free sugars include glucose, fructose, sucrose, and table sugar. They are commonly added to foods and drinks. Free sugars do not refer to those naturally contained in fruits, milk, and vegetables. Instead, they are in processed foods.

A diet with a high sugar intake raises the risk for a variety of health problems, including obesity and dental and oral health issues such as these:

  • Tooth decay
  • Cavities
  • Tooth abscesses
  • Potential tooth loss
  • Dental erosion
  • Early gum disease (gingivitis)

Consistently high blood sugar levels can increase your odds for developing diabetes, which can also negatively impact your oral health. People with diabetes have a greater risk for periodontal (gum) disease, dry mouth, and thrush, a fungal infection that causes white patches to form in your mouth. Chronic dry mouth can cause pain, sensitivity, infections, tooth decay, and mouth ulcers.

The best foods for your teeth

Just as there are foods that are bad for your teeth, there are numerous vitamins and foods that are good for them, your oral health, and your overall well-being.

It is important to eat foods that are rich in nutrients and from a variety of food groups. Eating balanced meals that include fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and those that are high in protein can support your general and oral health.

One of the main vitamins that supports dental health is calcium. It strengthens your enamel, which can protect you from tooth decay, cavities, and dental erosion.

It is recommended to get between 1,000 and 2,000 mg of calcium every day. Examples of calcium rich food and drinks include the following:

  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Fat-free or low-fat milk
  • Tofu made with calcium sulfate
  • Almonds
  • Dark green, leafy vegetables like kale, cooked spinach, and frozen collard greens
  • Canned salmon and sardines
  • Orange juice with added calcium (although be careful with quantity as this can also be acidic and contain added sugars)
  • Fortified soy milk
  • Beans

Another mineral that is good for strong teeth is phosphorus. It is the second most common mineral in our bodies, making up 1 percent of total body weight.

The majority of phosphorus is found in teeth and bones. It is important in the formation of teeth and bones, and it can help to promote strong teeth and bones once they are formed. These foods contain phosphorus:

  • Fish
  • Lean meats
  • Nuts
  • Dairy
  • Beans

Vitamin C can be good for your gum health and your overall immune system, which can support your oral health. Citrus fruits, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, and potatoes are all good sources. Be careful with the preparation and acid content as well though.

Bidirectional relationship between oral health, diet & nutrition

Diet and oral health are complexly intertwined in a bidirectional relationship. This means that the relationship goes both ways. The health of your mouth impacts the nutrients consumed, and your nutrition and diet impact your oral health.

Nutrition refers to the micro- and macro- nutrients that your body needs. Micro means vitamins and minerals, and macro refers to fats, carbohydrates, and protein.

Your diet is the specific foods you consume. A balanced and healthy diet full of the right nutrients correlates directly to good oral health. A more nutritious diet can support positive oral health and lower your risk for dental issues.

In reverse, poor oral health can make you less likely to eat the foods you need. Tooth decay and gum disease, as well as mouth infections and dry mouth, can all make it difficult or even painful to chew and swallow food normally. This can impact your diet and therefore your nutritional intake. In this way, oral health directly impacts your diet and nutrition.

Sugary snacking & dental health

The best bet for good oral health is to limit eating between meals as much as possible. If you do snack, avoid these foods:

  • Candy, sweets, and pastries
  • Potato chips
  • White bread
  • Dried fruits
  • Soda
  • Carbonated drinks
  • Sports drinks

When you do need a snack, stick to the following:

  • Piece of cheese
  • Nuts
  • Raw fruit or vegetables
  • Plain yogurt

Snacking in between meals increases the amount of time acid has to attack your teeth, and it can contribute to a higher risk of tooth decay. If you snack, brush your teeth after doing so, or at the very least, rinse your mouth out thoroughly with water.

How to reduce the risk of cavities

Cavities are common and often caused by poor oral hygiene and a diet that is too high in sugar.

To reduce the risk for developing cavities, eat a balanced and nutritious diet full of calcium, phosphorus, vitamin C, and fiber-rich foods. Stick to natural and lean foods as much as possible. Processed foods contain high amounts of refined sugar, which raise the risk for cavities.

Be sure to drink enough water to rinse acids away. A dry mouth can also contribute to tooth decay, so increasing your saliva production can help. Chewing sugarless gum can increase your salivary production and keep your mouth moist as well.

If you do treat yourself to a soda, use a straw. Try not to let the soda stay in your mouth for too long.

Limit your snacking between meals, and stay away from sticky, sour, acidic, and starchy food and drinks. If you eat or drink acidic foods or beverages, wait an hour to brush your teeth to allow your enamel to re-harden and your saliva to wash away the acids naturally. You can also drink milk or eat a piece of cheese, as dairy and calcium-rich products help to neutralize acid.

Good oral hygiene can lower your risk for tooth decay and cavities. A good oral health routine includes the following:

  • Brush your teeth two times per day for two minutes each time.
  • Use a fluoride toothpaste.
  • Floss daily in between your teeth.
  • See your dentist regularly for dental examinations and cleanings.
  • Consider sealants on your teeth.
  • Rinse with a fluoride rinse.
  • Use dental products that contain the ADA Seal of Acceptance.

Talk to your dentist about any potential dental concerns as soon as you notice them. Any changes in your mouth can indicate issues. When caught early, treatment can help to minimize the potential damage.

Both tooth decay and gum disease are common, preventable, and reversible in the early stages.

References

Diet and Oral Health. (2018). World Health Organization (WHO).

Sugars and Dental Caries: Evidence for Setting a Recommended Threshold for Intake. (January 2016). Advances in Nutrition.

Sugars and Tooth Decay. Queen Mary University of London.

Erosion: What You Eat and Drink Can Impact Teeth. Mouth Healthy American Dental Association (ADA).

WHO Calls on Countries to Reduce Sugars Intake Among Adults and Children. (March 2015). World Health Organization (WHO).

Diabetes and Oral Health. (November 2021). National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).

7 Non-Dairy, Calcium-Rich Foods for Your Teeth. Mouth Healthy American Dental Association (ADA).

Phosphorus in Diet. (November 2021). U.S. National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Healthy Nutrition for Healthy Teeth. (February 2021). Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Nutrition and Oral Health. (October 2021). American Dental Association (ADA).

Good Oral Health and Diet. (January 2012). Journal of Biomedicine and Biotechnology.

Disclaimer: This article is intended to promote understanding of and knowledge about general oral health topics. It is not intended to serve as dental or other professional health advice and is not intended to be used for diagnosis or treatment of any condition or symptom. You should consult a dentist or other qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition or treatment.

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