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Nutrition and a healthy smile

What you eat is key

Karen Miller
Nutrition and a healthy smile
Fruits, vegetables and proteins are recommended foods to enhance oral health.

WHEN YOU POP THAT BLUEBERRY INTO YOUR MOUTH OR TAKE A BITE OF CANTELOUPE, YOU ARE DELIVERING A HEARTY DOSE OF VITAMINS A AND C AND A HOST OF MINERALS TO YOUR BODY. But those nutrients don’t have to go very far to enhance your health. Your teeth and gums benefit as well.

Vitamin A promotes the production of saliva, which helps clean the mouth of bacteria. It is these bacteria that start cavities into motion. Vitamin C strengthens the gums and other soft tissue in the mouth. It helps protect against gingivitis, the early stage of gum disease.

Fruits, vegetables and proteins are recommended foods to enhance oral health.

Fruits, vegetables and proteins are recommended foods to enhance oral health.

Add some leafy greens, almonds or yogurt for calcium and salmon for vitamin D to help strengthen the teeth, and you have a pretty healthy mouth.
Good oral health depends on adequate intake of nourishing food. The problem is that not many people in this country follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans that were established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For instance, depending on age and gender, the federal guidelines recommend that adults eat at least 1½ to two cups of fruit and two to three cups of vegetables a day. But in its latest report, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that only 12 percent and 9 percent of adults, respectively, met the recommendations for fruit and vegetables. Americans are off the mark in consumption of whole grains and proteins as well.

People might not be eating their fruits and veggies, but they are consuming plenty of sugar. Actually, the body requires sugar. It supplies ammunition to fuel the body and keep it going. But there are two types — one good, one not so good. The natural or “good” sugars are found in fruits and veggies as well as dairy products. They provide energy and other nutrients to promote good health.

Added sugars, on the other hand, provide calories and no nutrients. And they are a little sneaky. They often go by other names so consumers are not even aware they are eating them. Here’s a hint. Any ingredient that ends in “ose” is a sugar. Examples are fructose, glucose, maltose and lactose. Sugar is the key ingredient in other foods, but you won’t find it on the list of ingredients. That syrup you pour on your pancakes, that concentrate you mix with water for a tasty beverage, the honey you use to sweeten your tea are all sugars. They taste good, but do little for your overall health, including your oral health.

Not just sugar

Sugars can’t take all the blame for tooth decay. They are part of the broader category of carbohydrates, which also includes fiber and starches. Carbohydrates like bread, pasta and potato chips, are all eventually broken down to sugar by saliva.

When you eat carbohydrates the bad bacteria eat as well. They feast on the starch and produce acid, which is the first step of tooth decay.
It’s not only what you eat, but how you eat. Some people snack on cookies, candy or crunchy chips throughout the day. Some people sip sugar-sweetened beverages to quench their thirst or wash down food. This perpetual intake of sugar-laden food and drink constantly exposes your teeth to acid.

A better choice

Think protein instead. Protein foods are the body’s building blocks and are work horses. They help fight infection and build and repair tissues, including your teeth. Good sources of protein are lean meat and poultry, seafood, eggs, beans and other legumes. Dairy products, such as milk, yogurt and cheese are rich in calcium as well as protein, which together form a protective barrier on tooth enamel. If none of these suit your fancy, perhaps unsalted nuts and seeds are more to your liking. According to the American Dental Association, nuts and seeds stimulate the production of saliva to reduce the risk for tooth decay.

The bottom line is that the mouth, like every part of the body, requires nourishment. That means a well-rounded diet that includes fruits, vegetables, protein and fiber. Combine that with daily brushing and flossing and regular check-ups with the dentist, and you should have a pretty healthy smile.

Reviewed by Kathy Cunningham, M.Ed., R.D., L.D.N.

At a glance

Foods that increase
risk of tooth decay:
Foods associated with
decreased risk of tooth decay:
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages,such as sodas, sports drinks and sweetened teas and coffees
  • Sticky foods, such as raisins,
  • fruit snacks and candy
  • Sugary starches, such
  • as cakes and cookies
  • Simple sugars, including
  • honey and table sugar
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables with no added sugars
  • Low-fat protein, such as lean
  • meats, eggs, fish, beans and legumes
  • Low-sugar, whole-grain breads
  • and cereals
  • Nuts
  • Dairy products
  • Fluoridated water or flavored
  • non-caloric seltzers


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