What To Eat (Or Not Eat) So Your Dentist Won’t Hate You

Besides brushing your teeth, think of what else you put in your mouth.

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Alright, we all know the routine. Assuming you’ve been to the dentist any time in the last ten years, you know how it goes — they check your teeth, do a cleaning, repair anything that’s rotting away, and then lecture you about the importance of flossing. Or brushing, if you’ve been especially lazy. I could easily tell you just how important all of those things are, but there’s a new aspect to dental hygiene that dentists and dental hygienists have taken on — Nutritional Counseling.

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What place does Nutritional Counseling have in a dental office, you ask? Good question! When you brush your teeth and floss in between and under the gums of those pearly whites, you’re pulling out bacteria and food residues that have been sitting there since your last meal. What most folks don’t realize is that whatever you’re eating can actually change just how quickly — and horribly — that layers of tooth get eroded away and bacteria can come chow down your teeth.

Think about it — what happens when you drop a penny into a cup of water, versus a cup of soda? If any of you have tried that experiment like I have, you know that in water maybe a few specks of residue will peel off the penny, but soda will wash away the grime and outer layers of that penny like it’s butter. Imagine what that could be doing to your teeth! All that acid peeling away those protective layers of your teeth, so that bacteria can come camp out on top and eat even more of those layers.

Now, don’t panic, you can breathe easy — I’m not going to tell you that you absolutely must stop drinking soda. That’s your choice, and I totally get it — I’ve had to rely on many a Redbull to get me through midterms. Instead, I’m going to give you some tips to save those chompers from decay, and save you from yet another lecture from your dentist.

((Tip: If you’re too cool for science, scroll down to the bottom until you see tl;dr for the lowdown on what to eat and what not to eat.))

The Tooth

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Before you can really understand how different foods affect your mouth and what’s going on inside it, you should know generally what a tooth is made up of. Safe to say, most dentists have a little model of a tooth that you can split and half and oogle at — but even I can admit that after they split that plastic open I completely zoned out and didn’t remember any of what they said. So here’s a quick run-down on what your teeth are composed of.

The crown of the tooth is the visible part of the tooth. Whenever you hear about someone getting a gold crown or having their crown sealed, it usually means that a dentist put something on the tooth to cover up that visible part. Underneath the gums is the root, that reaches all the way down and connects to the jaw bone. Easy, right?

Above the gum line, the outer layer of the tooth is called the enamel. It’s that protective layer on the outside of the tooth. It also happens to be the hardest material you possess in your body — for good reason. You don’t want that stuff dissolving away easily.

Right under the enamel is another part of the tooth called dentin. Above the gum line, it sits protected by the enamel — and under the gum line, it continues down right to the bottom of the tooth and meets the jaw bone. Dentin is not as hard as enamel, but is also a lot less brittle, making it an ideal wrap for that sensitive stuff inside.

In the middle of the tooth is the pulp. This is where the blood and nerve endings that go into the tooth live — and it’s essentially a little alarm system for your tooth. When things start to go wonky, and you get some tooth decay, that stuff in the pulp is what’s going to tell your brain that something’s going wrong. You’ll get a tooth ache, and then you know it’s time to go to the dentist again — sometimes before the tooth decay even reaches the pulp, and is just starting to mess with the dentin. It’s that good at its job.

Of course, you know that the tooth is wrapped by gum tissue, but there’s no need to go in depth there — just remember, the gums aren’t attached right at the point that you don’t see the tooth anymore, so some food can get stuck between the gums and tooth!

Chemistry

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Now here comes the scary part. No, not the idea of rotting teeth or teeth decay — chemistry. I’d be lying if I said that the thought of chemistry doesn’t make me cringe every time I read or hear it. But fear not, there’s no chemistry test at the end of this section. I promise.

Since it’s been a while since I’ve taken introductory chemistry, I’ll save you a google search and give you a quick rundown on the pH scale. It runs from 1 to 14, with 14 being basic and 1 being acidic. Water is usually around 7 pH. The pH of your mouth can have a significant effect on the state of your enamel and other parts of your tooth — the lower the pH, the more likely it’ll get eaten away at by acid erosion. Now that’s a little scary. Lucky for us, our mouths produce saliva — and our saliva acts as a natural enemy for those acids.

The saliva in our mouth is usually anywhere between 6.4 and 7.2 on the pH scale. Enamel can withstand a dip into acidity until a pH of about 5–5.5 — at which point the acidity can eat away at the tooth. On the other hand, the root structure can only withstand a pH drop until a pH of 6 — so it’s a good thing it’s protected by a nice cozy bed of gum tissue.

pH level is going to be one of the biggest factors in what I recommend you start or stop eating, so it’s pretty important.

What to Eat

These foods or drinks should definitely help your teeth and save your smile.

Photo by ilovebutter — no, really.

Many of us have heard this term before, but have no idea what it’s actually for. You’ve probably seen it walking down the aisles of a home-decor store, as they’re often marketed for aromatherapy. Essential oils are oils that are distilled from the leaves, shoots, or roots of various plants. Some examples of these plants are anise, cinnamon, clove, eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, myrrh, and rosemary. If you find any drinks or snacks with any of these essential oils, give them a try! They are known to have antibiotic effects — and kill those pesky bacteria that make your breath stink. Of all of these, definitely try myrrh — not only does it have that antiseptic effect, it also has astringent properties to help tighten up your gums and stop bacteria from creepin’ under your gums.

#Pro-tip: If you’re daring, add these oils/flavorings to your own drinks! But make sure that the oil you’ve bought is food grade — some of the oils geared for aromatherapy have additives that your stomach so won’t be happy about.

Photo by Kate Ter Haar

Seriously, I read new benefits that come with eating kale almost every day. Here’s yet another one to tack on — this leafy vegetable can help strengthen your teeth. It contains some of the highest concentrations of Vitamin Kper portion than any other vegetable, and that friendly vitamin builds up strength in your teeth. Next up in concentrations are Collard Greens and Spinach — so both of these would also be an excellent addition to your diet. Chop some up and toss it in a salad, or boil it for a nice side to your dinner!

Photo by Kyle Lam

Chances are, if you’re diabetic or know someone that’s diabetic, you’ve come across Xylitol before. Xylitol is a plant-derived sugar, and a pretty good sugar alternative if you’re prone to hyperglycemia (diabetes). It’s a non-carcinogenic (unlike some of the others on the market) natural sweetener derived from birch trees. Clinical studies have proven that xylitol prevents tooth decay — so even if you’re lacking on the brushing and flossing front, your teeth will be able to fight back a little better. Find this sweetener in many kinds of gum (but check to see that the other sweeteners aren’t detrimental) and ‘sugar free’ drinks, or in the sugar alternative section of your supermarket. Use it just like regular cane sugar, and rest assured that your teeth are in good hands! I personally put it in my tea with a splash of milk.

#Pro-tip: If you’ve never had xylitol before, take it easy the first few times you try it — like most plant sugars, our stomach is not used to breaking down the chemicals and you might get a little bit of a tummy ache.

Photo by McKay Savage

Green tea is great for your teeth in a few ways. First off, it lowers the acidity in your mouth (by raising the pH — see? Science!) to slow down acid erosion of the enamel. Second, studies show that green tea has anti-inflammatory properties to stop your gums from getting super agitated. Third, it has some antimicrobial properties — and once again, kills off bacteria that make your breath smell bad. All in all, green tea is a great, safe option for your teeth if you’re not feeling the whole ‘only water all day’ thing. Forego the sugar if you can manage it, but the benefits definitely outweigh a small teaspoon of sugar anyway.

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I’ve seen many a ‘Got milk?’ advert in my life, and one thing that stuck with me was this — it has calcium, which helps your bones. Lo and behold, your teeth are made up of the same tissues as bones! Clinically, studies show that calcium can help prevent bone loss. So calcium not only helps the pH in your mouth stay at a good level, but it also helps protect and build up the enamel in your mouth. So grab another glass and show me your milk mustache!

What Not To Eat

Okay, okay — I know I said I wasn’t going to say it’s absolutely necessary to get rid of these foods. Instead, all I’ll say is this: consider cutting back on these — but also consider some of the other foods or remedies that are listed for the problems these foods cause.

Photo by Jannes Pockele

As I mentioned before, soda can do some gnarly things to your teeth. If you’ve ever heard of Mountain Dew Mouth, you know just how gross it can get. The acidity of the drink can eat away at the enamel pretty quickly, and even eat away at the dentin and any fillings you might have had done. What can you do about this, besides cutting back? If you absolutely have to have some sugary soda, try root beer instead. It falls in the higher end of the pH spectrum as far as sodas go.

#Pro-tip: This also includes carbonated energy drinks. Energy drinks cause enamel loss at twice the rate of normal sodas. If you have to have one of these, try vigorously swishing some water immediately after you’ve finished to help recover the pH in your mouth faster.

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Of course, sugar-free sport drinks are a little less offensive than the sugary kind, but sports drinks are generally pretty detrimental to your teeth. If you’ve ever tried Propel Fit Powder ‘vitamins’, you might be surprised to know that it lowers the pH of your drink to 3.2 — far below what your enamel is suited to handle. In some ways, it’s even worse than soda! Citric acid, which is present in many of these drinks, binds calcium. Calcium in itself helps your teeth by strengthening enamel, but leeching calcium from your mouth can also cause the pH of your mouth to remain low for a longer amount of time. Instead, opt for drinks without added citric acid, or swish some water or milk to raise that pH back up and reintroduce some calcium into your mouth. You could also drink it through a straw, to minimize the amount of contact that it has with your teeth — but then you risk looking kinda dorky drinking your gatorade through a straw.

#Pro-tip: If the drink you’re considering buying in the grocery store includes added phosphoric, ascorbic, or lactic acids — put it back! These are significantly more erosive than citric acid.

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If you have citrus fruits twice daily, you’re 37 times more likely to have acid erosion on your teeth. Opt for fruits with less citric acid, like bananas, mangoes, or apples. If you must have that orange (I mean, how else are you going to avoid scurvy?) then follow it up with a dairy beverage, or chew on a piece of chocolate! These foods/drinks negate the effects of the acid by adding calcium or phosphorus, bringing the pH back up and helping your teeth not dissolve.

#Pro-tip: If your mouth is feeling gross after having citrus, DO NOT brush your teeth! Instead, rinse it out with water or milk and wait half an hour before brushing. If you brush your teeth while it’s still super acidic, you’re basically brushing away enamel that has softened.

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The acidity of foods soaked in vinegar skyrockets in comparison to the same foods without vinegar. This is because acetic acid — the component in vinegar, besides water — falls between 2 and 3 on the pH scale. Unlike acidic drinks, pickled foods can be even more risky since chewing really integrates that acid into the contact sites between teeth — you’re basically mashing the acid into the surfaces of your teeth! If you can’t opt for non-pickled foods, try following it up with some cheese or bread. The calcium and phosphorus in these foods will also help return the pH to a safe level for your enamel.

Photo by Jing

If you’ve ever made the mistake of spilling wine on a table cloth, you know you have to act fast or that stain will be there forever. Why would that be any different for your teeth? Not only can wine stain your teeth, but it also has a significantly low pH — around 3 or 4. Beer also tends to fall between pH 3 or 4, but varies based on what kind. If you have to have beer, opt for a mild or dark ale — their pH tends to run closer to 4. Then drink it with a classic bratwurst on a wheat hot-dog bun — that bun should have some good combative effects, lowering the acidity of your mouth. If you must have wine, pair it with a nice cheese! You should know how to do that anyway, if you’re a real wine connoisseur.

The Recap — tl/dr;

Eat these:

  • Essential Oils
  • Kale
  • Xylitol
  • Green Tea
  • Milk

Avoid these:

  • Soda
  • Sports Drinks
  • Citric Fruits/Drinks
  • Pickled Foods
  • Beer or Wine

And if you must have them, then do this:

  • Opt for root beer instead of Coke
  • Drink through a straw
  • Eat foods with calcium (Dairy, Chocolate, etc)
  • Eat foods with phosphorus (bread)
  • Swish your mouth with water afterwards
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