If you are what you eat, that's particularly true for your teeth and gums. When you drink and munch starchy or sugary foods, you're not only feeding yourself, you're feeding the plaque that can cause havoc in your mouth.
Plaque is a thin, invisible film of sticky bacteria and other materials that covers all the surfaces of all your teeth. When sugars or starches in your mouth come in contact with plaque, the acids that result can attack teeth for 20 minutes or more after you finish eating. Repeated attacks can break down the hard enamel on the surface of teeth, leading to tooth decay. Plaque also produces toxins that attack the gums and bone supporting the teeth.
Although some foods invite tooth decay, others help combat plaque buildup. Here are some foods to seek out and some to avoid.
The good guys
Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables. Foods with fiber have a detergent effect in your mouth, says the American Dental Association (ADA). They also stimulate saliva flow, which, next to good home dental care, is your best natural defense against cavities and gum disease. About 20 minutes after you eat something containing sugars or starches, your saliva begins to neutralize the acids and enzymes attacking your teeth. Because saliva contains traces of calcium and phosphate, it also restores minerals to areas of teeth that have lost them from the bacterial acids.
Cheese, milk, plain yogurt, and other dairy products. Cheese is another saliva generator. The calcium in cheese, and the calcium and phosphates in milk and other dairy products, help put back minerals your teeth might have lost due to other foods.
Green and black teas. Both contain polyphenols that interact with plaque bacteria. These substances either kill or suppress bacteria, preventing them from growing or producing tooth-attacking acid. Depending on the type of water you use to brew your tea, a cup of tea can also be a source of fluoride.
Sugarless chewing gum. This is another great saliva generator that removes food particles from your mouth.
Foods with fluoride. Fluoridated drinking water, or any product you make with fluoridated water, helps your teeth. This includes powdered juices (as long as they don't contain a lot of sugar) and dehydrated soups. Commercially prepared foods, such as poultry products, seafood, and powdered cereals, also can provide fluoride.
The bad guys
Sticky candies and sweets. If you eat sweets, go for those that clear out of your mouth quickly. So thumbs down for lollipops, caramels, and cough drops that contain refined sugar. Note: Effects of chocolate on preventing cavities have been widely touted (largely by studies funded by the candy industry), but not conclusively proven. Cacao (70 percent) does have some health benefits. Some studies have shown chocolate to be not as bad as other sugary treats.
Starchy foods that can get stuck in your mouth. Soft breads and potato chips, for instance, can get trapped between your teeth.
Carbonated soft drinks. These drinks are the leading source of added sugar among kids and teens. Besides being laden with sugar, most soft drinks contain phosphoric and citric acids that erode tooth enamel.
Substances that dry out your mouth. These include alcohol and many medicines. If medications are the cause, consider talking to your health care provider about getting a fluoride rinse, or a fluoride gel with which to brush your teeth.
Eat for a healthy mouth
The ADA offers these tips to help reduce tooth-decay risk from the foods you eat:
Consume sugary foods with meals. Your mouth produces more saliva during meals, and this helps neutralize acid production and rinse food particles from the mouth.
Limit between-meal snacks. If you crave a snack, choose something nutritious. Consider chewing sugarless gum afterward to increase saliva flow and wash out food and acid.
Drink more water. Fluoridated water can help prevent tooth decay. If you choose bottled water, check the label for the fluoride content.
Brush your teeth twice and floss once a day.