We use them every day and we need them for a lifetime. Many of us underestimate the importance of our teeth for drinking, chewing and even for speech development.
With advancements in health, our life expectancies are getting longer, we also need our teeth to last the test of time too.
Here, nutritionist Laurann O’Reilly and owner of Nutrition by Laurann, runs us through some of her top tips for maintaining not only your teeth but your overall oral health through both nutrition and lifestyle strategies.
1) Avoid High Sugar Foods: We know that excessive consumption of sugar is not good for our health as it can result in weight gain, it increases our risk of type 2 diabetes as well as other illnesses.
However, as the Dental Health Foundation Ireland (DHF) discusses, “there are many foods that provide important nutrients that also contain sugar, which can be consumed as part of a healthy and balanced diet.
From an oral health perspective, The DHF recommends that “whole fruits, vegetables and milk containing natural sugars are preferable to foods with “free sugars”.
They describe “free sugars” as “any sugars added to food (such as sweets, chocolate and biscuits) and those sugars that are naturally present in honey, fruit juices and syrup”.
This is because foods containing “free sugars” can cause tooth decay and should be consumed only as part of a meal and not as snacks between meals.
- Identifying Sugars: I’ve often discussed the sugar content of foods, unfortunately the sugars in foods are not always obvious and are otherwise known as ‘hidden sugars’ in what sometimes appear as healthy foods.
Tip 1. Watch out for other names for sugar: which include sucrose, glucose, corn syrup, fructose, maltose, dextrose and fruit sugars.
Tip 2. Read your labels: To calculate how many teaspoons of sugar are in a product, divide the ‘of which sugars’ number by 5, you may be surprised!
2) Choose Your Drinks Wisely: Along with high sugar solid foods, sugar can also hide in our drinks too.
- Fizzy Drinks: The DHF discuss how the “frequent consumption of sugary fizzy drinks and their acidic content increases the risk of tooth decay and can cause erosion of the tooth enamel”. In addition to this cola drinks contain an ingredient called ‘phosphoric acid’, which according to Stone Creek Dental Care (SCDC) is “highly corrosive to the teeth”.
- Juices & Sparkling Drinks: It’s not just high sugar drinks that are the issue however, as fruit juices can also be quite high in natural fruit sugars (fructose) and carbonated drinks, including sparkling water, can also lead to enamel erosion.
- Coffee: SCDC also suggests being cautious with coffee as “tannic acids found in coffee decrease saliva production and contribute to a dry mouth”.
As a result, “a dry mouth causes bad breath and a lack of saliva (saliva washes away the bacteria that cause cavities), which contributes to the growth of harmful bacteria in the mouth”
- Alcohol: Another one to be aware of in maintaining your oral health is excessive alcohol consumption. The SCDC discusses how “all alcoholic beverages dry out the mouth”. For example, red wine “also contains tannic acid” like coffee and white wine is no better as it “is more acidic than red wine”.
Tip: Milk and water are the most tooth friendly drinks and are suitable to drink during and between meals.
3) Tooth Healthy Nutrients To Include Your Diet: As the saying goes ‘you are what you eat’ and the same goes for our teeth.
For both the building, repair and maintenance of your teeth it’s important to include the following.
- Calcium: Plays an important role in strengthening your tooth’s hard outer shell called the enamel and helps your teeth fight off erosion and cavities. It’s also important for healthy bones including the jaw-bone which holds your teeth in place. Sources of Calcium:
1) Animal based sources such as low fat milk, yogurt, cheese, salmon, sardines and
2) Plant based sources such as fortified plant milks, tofu (made with calcium sulphate), broccoli, green leafy vegetables (cabbage/ spinach/kale), nuts (almonds/ brazil/ hazelnuts), seeds (sesame/chia) and dried fruit (raisins/prunes/figs/apricots).
- Magnesium: Magnesium and calcium work together and complement each other in building your hard tooth enamel.
Sources of Magnesium: Include dark green vegetables, legumes, nuts, corn, brown rice, buckwheat, rye, and other whole grains.
- Vitamin D: Vitamin D plays an important role in maintaining the health of our teeth as it aids the absorption of calcium. Sources of Vitamin D: 1) Sun exposure via our skin, specifically ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which is why it’s also known as ‘the sunshine vitamin’.
The World Health Organisation advice is to get 5 to 15 minutes of casual sun exposure to hands, face and arms two to three times a week during the summer months. 2) Through food such as oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, tinned salmon, herring and kippers and a small amount in sources such as red meat, liver and eggs.
Fortified milk such as super milk and cereals are also great sources.
The recently published Oireachtas report recommends that the entire Irish population take a Vitamin D supplement all year round, alongside dietary sources in order to adequately meet requirements.
- Vitamin C: Being a powerful antioxidant it helps to promote gum health. Sources of Vitamin C: Include Citrus fruits (oranges/ grapefruit/lemon/lime), blueberries, strawberries, blackcurrants, peppers, broccoli, spinach and potatoes.
- Phosphorus: An important mineral which helps the body absorb and use calcium and strengthens teeth by protecting and rebuilding tooth enamel. Sources of Phosphorus: Includes eggs, fish, lean meat, dairy, nuts and beans
4) Allow Time Between Your Meals: It’s not just about the foods you eat or avoid, but when and how you eat them that’s important. As DHF suggest that “it’s not the quantity of sugar in food or drink that causes damage to teeth, but the frequency of your sugar consumption, because you’re increasing the amount of daily acid attacks on your teeth”.
Food containing 'free sugars' as discussed above can lead to tooth decay and should only be consumed “as part of a meal and not as snacks between meals”.
They also do not recommend sipping on fizzy drinks throughout the day as “both sugar and salvia combine to create an acid”.
Remember as each ‘acid attack’ lasts around 20 minutes and each time the teeth are exposed, the acid damage starts again.
Tip: Give your teeth a break from high sugar foods between meals rather than constantly grazing to allow your teeth to naturally recover.
5) Tooth Friendly Snacks: Many of us need our snacks in between our meals being constantly on the go and to meet our nutritional requirements.
Here are some tooth friendly snack suggestions for both you and your family: whole fruit, chopped raw vegetables, sandwiches, whole grain bread, crackers, low fat yoghurt, low fat cheese (which provide calcium for healthy bones and teeth) and plain popcorn.
6) How To Avoid Tooth Staining: Whilst the structure of our teeth is extremely important, the appearance of our teeth can be a concern for some as well, with most of us aspiring to have shiny pearly whites. Here are some tips to prevent staining:
- Reduce Tea/Coffee: As they contain tannins, a type of chemical compound that can cause colour compounds to stick to your teeth.
- Reduce The Wine: As mentioned above, red wine also contains tannins that can stain your teeth, whilst the acidity of wine can weaken the pores of your teeth and make them more prone to staining.
- Avoid the Cola: Due to the acidic nature of cola, containing the phosphoric acid (discussed above) and with regular colas also being high in sugar, this can cause erosion of your enamel which exposes the dentin of the tooth (a layer under the enamel which is more of a yellow colour). It can also make your teeth more vulnerable to staining.
7) Avoid Smoking: Whilst smoking can also cause staining on the teeth due to nicotine and tar in the tobacco, the DHF discuss how smoking can also result in increased plaque build-up, bad breath and gum disease. This is “due to a lack of oxygen in the bloodstream, so the infected gums don't heal properly” (dentalhealth.org).
8) Cleaning your teeth: To maintain that healthy smile, it's important to brush your teeth twice a day with a fluoride toothpaste (Irish Dental Association).
With so many different toothpastes on the market both for adults and children it’s important to choose the right one, the recommendation from the National Childhood Network (NCN) is a toothpaste with a minimum of 1000ppm (from the age of two years onwards, unless advised by your dentist).
Also don’t forget to floss daily to clean those hard to reach places in between your teeth.
For more information on dental health the Dental Health Foundation have some great resources www.dentalhealth.ie or contact your local dentist.
For further information contact Laurann at firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nutritionbylaurann.ie
Laurann O’Reilly is a qualified and experienced nutritionist with a BSc. Degree in Human Nutrition from University of Nottingham and a Masters in Public Health Nutrition from University College Dublin.
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