Understanding The Relationship Between Your Diet and Your Oral Health

When we think about eating badly or guilty snacking, we tend to think about our waistlines but what about our teeth?

The importance of a healthy smile, is not to be underestimated.

Our mouths and smiles are key features when we meet someone and are integral in communication. Our mouths are therefore hugely important to our social and mental health. If we feel self-conscious of our smile we are less likely to make eye contact and more likely to cover our mouth with our hands when we talk; impairing effective communication.

Beautiful woman with healthy smile

The mouth is the gateway to the rest of the body – it is therefore vital to ensure our oral health is tip top in order to support our general health. There are strong links between poor oral health and systemic conditions; gum diseases have been linked to heart disease, Alzheimer’s, cancers and even complications during pregnancy!

We need to be aware of what damage our lifestyles can do to the health of our teeth and gums, and how we can prevent that damage.

The problem

Every time we eat, our teeth are subjected to what's known as “acid attacks.” This is where sugars, present in food, are initially broken down by saliva, at the first stage of digestion in the mouth; the resulting acids can damage the teeth, causing tooth decay and dental erosion.

The more frequently we eat, the more regularly these acid attacks happen. This is why eating little and often or grazing throughout the day is more damaging to your teeth than having bigger regular meals. Even in 1999 The British Nutrition Foundation's Oral Health report said the frequency with which people eat sugary foods is "the most important dietary factor in the development of decay".

We often find ourselves reaching for a pick-me-up biscuit in the afternoon, a cup of sugary tea throughout the day or chocolate in the evening but these habits are exactly what wreaks havoc with our teeth. With many people working from home at the moment, the temptation to snack throughout the day might be stronger. Moreover, the festive season often means that sweet treats are in plentiful supply.

Woman selecting from a bowl of biscuits at work

But did you know?

Brushing your teeth straight after food or drink is one of the worst things you can do. The outer surface of the tooth is weakened by these acids and therefore is temporarily more vulnerable - you would be brushing off the enamel if you brushed now!

After we eat, our saliva naturally neutralises the acids on the tooth surface so within half an hour the pH level is restored. This is why dental professionals recommend leaving 30 mins between eating and then brushing your teeth. If food or drink is particularly acidic then using a mouth wash during this time whilst waiting to brush could be beneficial to help the mouth restore itself faster.

The balance between the acidic environment after eating and the mouth naturally restoring itself is precarious and if it is tipped too much towards the acidic side that’s when dental decay and erosion happens.

The consequences

Tooth decay is where the acids produced in the mouth by bacteria dissolve the hard tissues of the teeth (enamel and dentine) and cause cavities; 76% of British adults have fillings due to cavities and 66% have had at least one tooth extracted because of tooth decay! Tooth decay can look like white, grey or black spots on the teeth and can often be painless until the inside sensitive part of the tooth is involved.

Dental erosion however, is the irreversible loss of these hard-dental tissues from acids, but without the involvement of bacteria. The acids in this case can come from inside the body (often due to acid reflux or sickness) or outside the body (foods and drinks). Teeth with acid erosion can look rounded at the edges, thinning and yellow- they can also be sensitive to hot and cold. Shockingly 77% of UK adults have signs of erosion on their front teeth!

Woman experiencing dental pain

The Solution

There are the obvious foods and drinks which can damage the teeth that most people will be aware of, like sweets and biscuits, however there are certain foods that pose as healthier choices which are also bad news for your oral health.

Foods

Acidic foods are particularly troublesome in terms of dental erosion, such as tomatoes and citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and grapefruit. Try to only eat these at meal times and drink water or milk alongside it - even small amounts of cheese can help neutralise acids in the mouth due to its alkaline nature.

Sugary foods like sweets, cakes, chocolates and biscuits pose an obvious dental decay risk, however dried fruit and prepared fruit pouches (often made for children) are also very high in sugar. These foods are often eaten between meal times which increases the amount of acid attacks the teeth undergo in a day - in this case stick to healthier vegetable sticks, rice crackers and hummus, and plain yoghurt between meals or fresh fruits like bananas and apples. Sugar-free chewing can stimulate saliva to help with the neutralising process if you are on the go.

Sugars can often be hidden in processed foods like ready meals, pasta sauces, jarred curries and condiments so the best way to avoid these it to look at the labels for no added sugars or make your own! Batch cooking with fresh ingredients and freezing is a great way to make week night cooking easier and healthier for both a busy professional and a whole family.

Couple cooking from scratch with raw ingredients

Drinks

Fruit juices and smoothies are often seen as a healthy option – especially if homemade- but they can also be very acidic. A seemingly healthy trend that has gained traction recently for its supposed cleansing properties is lemon water; this is one of the worst things for your teeth due to its extremely high acid content. Scientific research has actually shown limited benefits to drinking it for cleansing purposes and therefore many dental professionals will advise against drinking it.

Fizzy drinks have double the impact as they often contain lots of sugar, which causes tooth decay, but they also contain carbonic acid from the bubbles, which causes acid erosion. Even fizzy or sparkling water contains these acids! It is best to only drink fizzy drinks or juices occasionally as a treat, with a meal and with a straw. Drinking through a straw, limits the contact time with the teeth and stops us swishing the liquid around our mouths so it is definitely a good idea for times when we do want to indulge (just perhaps try to use an eco-friendly/reusable straw).

Man holding takeaway smoothie with drinking straw

Prevention

There are some simple steps you can follow that will help you in achieving a healthier mouth:Top 5 Tips For A Healthier Mouth Infographic | HealthHubble

 

Want to keep learning? Find more articles from Frances Robinson:

 


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