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Nutrition and Oral Health

Originally published September 2016. Most recently reviewed and updated Feb 2023.

by Donna Pleis (United Concordia)

It's no secret that eating lots of sugary foods can lead to cavities. But when so many foods contain added sugar, how can you keep your teeth healthy without starving? Fortunately, there's no need to go hungry. By understanding how nutrition and oral health are related and following these simple tips, you can have your cake and eat it too.

How Does Sugar Contribute to Tooth Decay?

Your mouth is a natural habitat for bacteria and bacteria love to feast on sugar. When they do, harmful acids are produced, which eat away at the hard outer layer of your teeth (the enamel) and cause tooth decay. For about 20 minutes after eating, your teeth are under siege from decay-causing acids. Eventually your saliva neutralizes these acid attacks, but the more often you consume sugary, starchy foods throughout the day, the greater your risk of developing cavities.

Look for Healthy Alternatives

While sugary treats can be hard to resist, there are healthier food choices that can both satisfy your sweet tooth and banish between-meal hunger pangs. Instead of reaching for a candy bar, bite into a fresh, crisp apple. Swapping out your starchy pretzels for a handful of crunchy, raw veggies is another trade worth making for the sake of your teeth. Fluoridated water and milk are great substitutes for sodas and sugary fruit juices.

In fact, dairy products are not only necessary for developing bones and teeth, they also reduce the acidity level in your mouth, helping to protect your teeth against decay. Additionally, cheese and some yogurts contain calcium and phosphorus compounds that are known to strengthen tooth enamel.

To get into the habit of eating healthy snacks, stock your fridge with lots of fresh fruits and veggies, yogurt, cheese and milk. And keep a supply of sugarless gum, peanut butter and whole grain crackers in the pantry. Regularly reading food labels and checking for hidden sugars will also help keep you and your family on track.

Eat Sweets the Healthy Way

If you can't bring yourself to give up your favorite sweets, limit the amount you consume and eat them with a meal. It also helps if you brush your teeth after eating. And, if you can't brush, at least do a "swish and swallow" with water or milk.

Keep in mind that some sugary foods—such as sticky, chewy or hard candies—can stick to your teeth, exposing your teeth to acids for extended periods of time. So, if you are craving a piece of candy, eat something that you can chew and swallow quickly and won't adhere to your teeth.

A Surprisingly Good Sugar

While this may sound bizarre, there is one sugar that dentists encourage their patients to eat because it helps prevent cavities. Unlike regular sugar, the natural sugar xylitol (found in some chewing gums, candies, mints and lemonade mixes) doesn't break down in the mouth to form acids. Although xylitol is safe for you and your family, be sure to keep it away from your furry friends. Dogs cannot tolerate this sweetener, even in small amounts.

Knowing how nutrition and oral health are related can help you make smarter food choices that can lower your risk of developing cavities. When combined with regular brushing and flossing and routine dental exams, healthy eating can have a big impact on your oral health and overall wellness.



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