If you are what you eat, that's particularly true for your teeth and gums. When you drink and munch starchy foods, you're not only feeding yourself, you're feeding the plaque that can cause havoc in your mouth.
Plaque is a thin, invisible film of sticky bacteria and other materials that covers all the surfaces of all your teeth. When sugars or starches in your mouth come in contact with plaque, the acids that result can attack teeth for 20 minutes or more after you finish eating. Repeated attacks can break down the hard enamel on the surface of teeth, leading to tooth decay. Plaque also produces toxins that attack the gums and bone supporting the teeth.
Although some foods invite tooth decay, others help combat plaque buildup. Here are some foods to seek out and some to avoid.
Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables: "Foods with fiber have a detergent effect in your mouth," says Richard H. Price, D.M.D., a consumer spokesman for the American Dental Association, "and they also stimulate saliva flow, which, next to good home dental care, is your best natural defense against cavities and gum disease." About 20 minutes after you eat something containing sugars or starches, Dr. Price adds, your saliva begins to neutralize the acids and enzymes attacking your teeth. Because saliva contains traces of calcium and phosphate, it also restores minerals to areas of teeth that have lost them.
Cheese, milk, plain yogurt, and other dairy products: Cheese is another saliva generator. The calcium in cheese, and the calcium and phosphates in milk and other dairy products, help put back minerals your teeth might have lost due to other foods. Dr. Price suggests a cheese course for dessert.
Green and black teas: Both contain polyphenols that interact with plaque bacteria. These substances either kill or suppress bacteria, preventing them from growing or producing tooth-attacking acid. Depending on the type of water you use to brew your tea, a cup of tea can also be a source of fluoride.
Sugarless chewing gum: Another great saliva generator that, Dr. Price adds, removes food particles from your mouth.
Licorice: Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles found that, in test tubes, compounds in this ancient Chinese herb inhibited the growth of Streptococcus mutans, the main plaque bacteria.
Foods with fluoride: Fluoridated drinking water, or any product you make with fluoridated water, helps your teeth. This includes powdered juices (as long as they don't contain a lot of sugar) and dehydrated soups. Commercially prepared foods, such as poultry products, seafood, and powdered cereals, also can provide fluoride.
Before we get to foods that are particularly bad for your teeth, Dr. Price offers a rule of thumb: The longer food that promotes plaque bacteria stays in your mouth, the worse it is. So it's not necessarily the amount of sweets you eat, but how often you eat them.
"Having one jelly doughnut or piece of candy per hour will cause more damage than having 10 of them at the same time," he says.
Sugary candies and sweets that stick in your mouth: If you eat sweets, go for those that clear out of your mouth quickly, Dr. Price advises. So thumbs down for lollipops, caramels and cough drops that contain refined sugar. Surprisingly, thumbs up for chocolate, which, because its sugars are coated in fat, slips easily out of your mouth, notes Philadelphia-area dietitian Althea Zanecosky, R.D. "A chocolate bar washes out of your mouth quicker than gummy bears," says Dr. Price. "One study a while ago suggested chocolate bars cause fewer cavities than raisins because raisins are sticky and have natural sugars," which get broken down in the mouth because they hang around so long.
Starchy foods that can get stuck in your mouth: Starches, which are complex carbohydrates, can also linger in your mouth. Examples: Bread or potato chip bits trapped between your teeth. "If you get bread stuck in your mouth or at the back of your teeth, bacteria love to feed on carbs," says Cynthia Sass, R.D., a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
Carbonated soft drinks: These drinks are the leading source of added sugar among kids and teens. Besides being laden with sugar, most soft drinks contain phosphoric and citric acids that erode tooth enamel.
Sports drinks, energy drinks, and highly sugared teas and lemonades: High sugar levels in these drinks promote tooth decay.
Items that dry out your mouth, including alcohol and many medicines: Be sure your mouth is plaque free, advises Dr. Price, and also drink plenty of water. If medications are the cause, consider talking to your doctor about getting a fluoride rinse, or a fluoride gel with which to brush your teeth.
Lemons: It's OK to eat them, says Dr. Price, but don't suck on them. The very acidic juice will erode the enamel of your front teeth.
The American Dental Association offers these tips to help reduce tooth-decay risk from the foods you eat:
Consume sugary foods with meals: Saliva production increases during meals, which helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.
Limit between-meal snacks: If you crave a snack, choose nutritious foods and consider chewing sugarless gum afterward to increase saliva flow and wash out food and acid. Each time you eat food that contains sugars or starches, acids attack your teeth for 20 minutes or more.
Drink more water: Consuming fluoridated water can help prevent tooth decay. If you choose bottled water, check the label for the fluoride content.
Brush your teeth twice and floss once a day.
© 2014 Main Line Health