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What we eat directly affects our dental health and, with almost 50 per cent of youngsters and more than 55 per cent of adults in the UK suffering with some tooth decay, it is worth knowing what foods, and why, are bad for our gnashers.
What is tooth decay?
The smooth, white surface of our teeth (the enamel) is regularly subject to attack as the acids produced by our mouths to break down carbohydrates dissolve some of the enamel.
This demineralisation can be repaired naturally thanks to saliva, which helps to neutralise the acids and deliver essential minerals back to the tooth surface. When the mouth is unable to repair the damage quick enough, however, tooth decay can quickly set in, particularly in children and the elderly where the enamel is softer or well worn. Left untreated it can result in pain and eventually tooth loss.
When the tooth enamel is irreversibly damaged (ie. dissolved by acid in the diet), it is called dental erosion.
The good news is, tooth decay and dental erosion is not only largely preventable but is also manageable if treated early on.
How does diet affect dental health?
It is well known that a good, healthy diet is essential to properly care for the teeth. All those rumours about sugar rotting your teeth are true (research has shown that people eating a high-sugar diet are much more prone to tooth decay) but it is our habit of mixing sugars with other carbohydrates that cause the mouth to produce so much of that tooth-decaying acid.
Furthermore, those who eat sugar frequently cause more damage to their teeth than those who eat the same quantity in one go as the saliva never has time to do its repair work. Chewy products that stay in the mouth for some time are also known to be more damaging as they allow the bacteria more time to produce acid.
Not all foods are bad for your pearly whites though. Cheese, for example, helps to protect against tooth decay by increasing the flow of saliva, reducing the amount of bacteria on the teeth and boosting the calcium content of plaque, thereby helping to prevent the erosion of the enamel.
Similarly milk, though it contains the sugar lactose, is also laden with calcium, phosphate and the protein casein, all of which protect the teeth.
How can I prevent tooth decay?
A few simple changes to your eating habits can help prevent or at the very least minimise damage to your teeth.
Sugary foods are your smile's worst enemy so try not to indulge too often and don't forget that fruit, particularly the sticky dried variety, contains lots of sugar too so try snacking on raw veggies or cheese instead. If you can't resist those sweet treats, avoid picking at sweets or chocolates throughout the day as your saliva will not have time to repair the damage.
That goes for regular meals too - give your mouth one or two hours between eating or drinking to allow the remineralisation of the enamel. If you can't resist a drink between meals opt for water or milk.
Avoid brushing your teeth immediately after your evening meal, particularly if you have a glass of wine or acidic foods for dinner, as brushing before the tooth has been repaired can irrevocably damage the enamel. A little milk or cheese at the end of a meal can help to neutralise the acid.
Of course, regular check-ups at the dentist, proper brushing and flossing are all of paramount importance but by changing your eating habits, your teeth will have the best chance of staying healthy and strong.