Looking after your teeth and gums involves more than twice daily brushing and flossing. Just as important for your oral health is what you eat and drink.
Cutting down on sugar is a great start for helping you avoid tooth decay and other dental problems, but it's also useful to know what foods and drinks can support healthy teeth and gums.
Read this guide to the best tooth-friendly food and drinks for kids and adults so you can start lowering your family's oral health risks today.
Milk, cheese and other dairy products are great dietary sources of calcium, which can strengthen teeth enamel and the jaw bone by replacing lost minerals. Many dairy products also contain casein, which supports calcium in repairing damaged enamel.
Cheese and other dairy also contain phosphate, which helps to neutralise acids in the mouth. Eating cheese after a meal or alongside wine can reduce tooth erosion from acidic drinks and prevent tooth decay caused by acids released by bacteria on the teeth.
Natural yoghurt also contains calcium and probiotics that can improve your resistance to cavities and gum disease. Just make sure the yoghurt is sugar free, or you could cancel out the benefit.
Fruit and vegetables
Fruits and vegetables should be part of any balanced diet, but those that are high in fibre, vitamin C and antioxidants are especially good for oral health.
Eating high-fibre foods such as crunchy fruits and leafy greens helps to keep your teeth clean and free from plaque, as these foods scrub the surfaces of your teeth as you chew. By encouraging chewing, they also stimulate the flow of saliva, which rinses the mouth of leftover food and bacteria and helps to neutralise acids.
Although whole fruits contain natural sugar, their high water content means this sugar is less likely to stick to your teeth and cause decay compared to 'free' sugars in processed food and drink. You should avoid more acidic citrus fruits that may wear down teeth, although oranges are an exception, as they are rich in vitamin C that can reduce inflammation and gum disease.
Nuts are another good natural source of calcium and phosphorus that help to strengthen teeth. They also contain a wide range of other vitamins and minerals that support oral health and general health.
Whether you're fond of almonds, brazils, cashews, peanuts or walnuts, many nuts can be beneficial for teeth – as long as you take care when eating them, so you don't chip or crack a tooth and need an emergency dentist.
Meat, fish, eggs and tofu
Fatty and oily fish such as salmon, tuna and mackerel are high in phosphorus, omega-3 and vitamin D, which help the teeth to absorb calcium. Red meat and eggs also contain these valuable nutrients, along with others such as vitamin K. Non-carnivores can find similar benefits in tofu products.
Milk may help to rebuild teeth, but water is still the best drink for oral health – especially when your local tap water contains fluoride.
Drinking plenty of water throughout the day supports saliva in helping to cleanse your mouth of leftover food, bacteria and acids. It also helps you to stay hydrated, preventing a dry mouth which increases oral health risks.
Fluoride is the missing ingredient that combines with calcium and phosphate from other food and drink sources to form fluorapatite – a compound that strengthens tooth enamel to make it more resistant to decay and cavities.
There are persistent myths around the supposed dangers of fluoride that are not supported by evidence. In fact, the evidence shows that water fluoridation at safe levels has greatly improved oral health in communities since it was introduced.
Tea and coffee
Green and black tea and coffee are rich in polyphenols. These naturally occurring chemicals work as antioxidants to kill bacteria and reduce inflammation, helping to prevent tooth decay and gum disease. Making your tea or coffee with fluoridated water and adding milk makes it even better for your teeth – just skip the sugar!
The downside of tea and coffee for teeth is that they are major causes of stains and discolouration, due to their strong pigments that can transfer to the teeth. Staining may be avoided with good oral hygiene, drinking through a straw and swallowing quickly to reduce contact with the teeth. Existing stains may be covered up by cosmetic dental treatments such as teeth whitening.
Teeth friendly snacks for kids
Eating and drinking healthy is important at all ages, but kids' teeth need special care because they're smaller and much more vulnerable to decay. Unfortunately, children and teenagers are also the most likely to indulge in sweet treats, so parents should substitute tooth-friendly alternatives wherever possible.
To help your kids cut down on sugar and follow a balanced diet, you can try:
- Fruit and vegetables with a high water content, such as celery, cucumbers, melons and pears
- Cheese snacks for lunchboxes, especially chewy varieties to stimulate saliva and cleanse their mouth
- Dairy and other good sources of calcium, such as broccoli
- Sugar-free snacks, particularly those containing the substitute xylitol which can help to prevent cavities
- Plain water, milk and healthy homemade smoothies as substitutes for sugary fruit juices and soft drinks
Food and drink to avoid
Sugar isn't unhealthy in moderation, but consuming too much can damage the teeth and increase the risk of developing other health problems, including heart and kidney disease, stroke and type-2 diabetes.
As well as checking the sugar content of products, it's also a good idea to avoid certain types of food and drinks, particularly:
- Sticky lollies and dried fruit. These can stay on the teeth for longer, even after brushing, giving them more time to cause damage.
- Soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit juices. Even low-sugar or sugar-free soft drinks can still damage teeth due to the presence of acids, which can wear down and weaken the enamel over time.
Besides sugar, you should also take care with:
- Starchy foods such as potato chips and soft breads. These can also get stuck on the teeth and might be missed by your toothbrush.
- Alcohol, medication and other substances that cause dryness of the mouth and can affect the salivary glands.
- Hard foods that may chip or crack a tooth, requiring a dental crown or other restoration.
How does sugar rot your teeth?
Sugar itself doesn't damage your teeth, but it can feed bacteria in plaque – a sticky layer that builds up on teeth surfaces. These bacteria convert sugar into acids which can erode the enamel surface of teeth, causing them to wear down or forming cavities. This is known as tooth decay, or dental caries.
Teeth affected by decay are weakened and can be more prone to damage. A tooth that's too badly decayed may fall out or need an extraction to stop tooth decay from spreading to the surrounding teeth. If tooth decay is spotted early, your dentist may be able to restore the tooth with a white filling or other treatment.
If plaque reaches the gum line, it can cause inflammation of the gums known as gum disease. This can sometimes be reversed by cutting down on sugar and improving your oral hygiene routine, but it may also need treatment from your dentist.
How much is too much sugar?
Sugar isn't always bad for you. In fact, at safe levels it can be a good source of energy for the body. However, many foods and drinks sold today contain added sugar, which is where most of the sugar in the average diet comes from.
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that adults should not consume more than 50g of sugar per day. According to the latest figures from the Australian Health Survey, the average Australian consumes 60g of sugar per day – the equivalent of 14 teaspoons. Children and teenagers tend to consume even more, with male teens consuming the most sugar at 92g per day on average.
How to look after your teeth
If you're worried about how much sugar you or your family are consuming, make sure you check the nutrition labels on packaging and avoid food and drink that are high in sugar. You can also reduce the effects of sugar by:
- drinking water after having something sugary to rinse it off your teeth
- drinking through a straw to reduce contact between your teeth and sugary drinks
- eating snacks at the same time as meals so your teeth will be exposed to less acid
- brushing your teeth twice a day using fluoride toothpaste
- flossing once a day
- chewing sugar-free gum to stimulate saliva production
- keeping up with your scheduled dental check-ups so your dentist can check your mouth for signs of decay and offer advice or treatments if needed.
Need a dentist in Sydney CBD?
If you want to talk to a dentist about your diet, your teeth or anything else, Sydney CBD Dental is conveniently located at 300 George Street.
Better Health Channel. Sugar [Online] 2011 [Accessed May 2021] Available from: https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/sugar
Australian Bureau of Statistics. Australian Health Survey: Consumption of added sugars, 2011-12 [Online] 2016 [Accessed May 2021] Available from: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs%40.nsf/Lookup/4364.0.55.011main+features12011-12