Brush twice a day, floss often, use mouthwash…and eat? The secret to healthy teeth for life might be in the refrigerator. Certain foods can help prevent cavities and tooth decay, keep plaque (sticky bacteria filled-film that can cover the teeth and gums) at bay, and even freshen breath. Read on to learn how to impress the dentist by incorporating tooth-friendly foods into every meal.
The Best Foods
Milk and Eggs
You might have guessed milk would be on this list. Dairy products like milk and egg yolks are excellent sources of calcium and vitamin D. (Fun fact: You can also get vitamin D from about five to 30 minutes of sun exposure at least twice a week). Think of calcium and vitamin D as the Batman and Robin of bone health. The body requires a dose of vitamin D to absorb calcium, which in turn strengthens bones and teeth. Calcium and vitamin D in the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis - a clinical update. Boonen S, Vanderschueren D, Haentjens P. Journal of internal medicine, 2006, Jul.;259(6):0954-6820. Not into milk? There are plenty of non-dairy alternatives.
Cheese and Yogurt
Foods rich in calcium and phosphorus can protect tooth enamel and even help replace minerals in teeth (a process called remineralization). Low-fat cheese and plain nonfat yogurt are classic calcium-rich choices. Cheese is especially beneficial because it contains casein, a protein found in milk products that can shore up enamel. Remineralization of early enamel lesions using casein phosphopeptide amorphous calcium Phosphate: an ex-vivo study. Vashisht R, Kumar A, Indira R. Contemporary clinical dentistry, 2012, Mar.;1(4):0976-2361.
Meat, Fish, and Tofu
Meat, fatty fish (like salmon), and tofu are loaded with phosphorus, another important mineral that may protect tooth enamel. Quantitative analysis of the calcium and phosphorus content of developing and permanent human teeth. Arnold WH, Gaengler P. Annals of anatomy = Anatomischer Anzeiger : official organ of the Anatomische Gesellschaft, 2007, May.;189(2):0940-9602. Homemade broth made from meat bones is a particular good source of this essential mineral.
Broccoli, Bok Choy, and Other Dark, Leafy Veggies
Looking for vegetarian-friendly sources for the minerals we've mentioned? Broccoli, bok choy, kale, okra, collards, and other dark, leafy veggies are excellent animal-free ways to get plenty of vitamins and minerals.
Celery, Carrots, and Other Crunchy Veggies
Just like the rest of your body, teeth require a little work every now and then to stay sharp. Crunchy, firm foods that contain lots of water (and require lots of chewing) are good for oral health because they stimulate the flow of saliva and can actually scrub tooth surfaces, brightening your pearly whites. Mastication and its influence on human salivary flow and alpha-amylase secretion. Mackie DA, Pangborn RM. Physiology & behavior, 1990, Aug.;47(3):0031-9384. Saliva also contains enzymes that buffer the acids present in food and clean bits of food out of nooks and crannies.
Whether artificial sweeteners are safe is still up for debate, but some dentists might be in the “pro” camp. Some fake sweeteners, like Xylitol, can actually prevent cavities. Are sugar-free confections really beneficial for dental health? Nadimi H, Wesamaa H, Janket SJ. British dental journal, 2011, Oct.;211(7):1476-5373. So when an urge to snack on sweet stuff hits, grab a stick of sugar-free gum instead of a lollipop. Sugar-free chewing gum and dental caries: a systematic review. Mickenautsch S, Leal SC, Yengopal V. Journal of applied oral science : revista FOB, 2010, Jun.;15(2):1678-7765.
The Worst Foods
Lime, Lemons, Oranges, and Grapefruit
It’s no surprise that citrus is loaded with citric acid. Quantitative assessment of citric acid in lemon juice, lime juice, and commercially-available fruit juice products. Penniston KL, Nakada SY, Holmes RP. Journal of endourology / Endourological Society, 2008, Sep.;22(3):0892-7790. Strong acids (foods with a low pH rating) are the number-one cause of enamel erosion and tooth decay. The role of diet in the aetiology of dental erosion. Lussi A, Jaeggi T, Zero D. Caries research, 2004, Feb.;38 Suppl 1():0008-6568.
But if you just can't go without a glass of Florida O.J. in the morning, minimize your acid exposure by drinking the juice in one sitting (a.k.a. not sipping for hours) and then avoiding other acidic foods and drinks for several hours. And keep in mind: If a food or drink easily stains the teeth (we’re looking at you, coffee and red wine), it’s usually fairly acidic.
What happens when you mix veggies and vinegar? If you guessed a tooth’s worst nightmare, you’d be right. Pickles are tasty on a sandwich, but the combination of super-acidic vinegar and sugar is a recipe for enamel erosion.
Sorry, coffee addicts. Not so surprisingly, that morning cup (or three) of Joe puts oral health at risk. The tannic acids in coffee (and some teas) wear down enamel and can even stain teeth brown. The effect of at-home bleaching and toothbrushing on removal of coffee and cigarette smoke stains and color stability of enamel. Bazzi JZ, Bindo MJ, Rached RN. Journal of the American Dental Association (1939), 2012, Oct.;143(5):1943-4723. But if you refuse to give up your brew, take heart: Coffee does have several health benefits.
Studies show a glass of red wine every once in a while can be good for the heart and cholesterol levels. Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever experienced “wine teeth” knows that the purplish beverage can stain quite easily. The acids in red and white wine wear down the surface of teeth, which is why stains are so common.
They might make taste buds happy all summer long, but tomatoes are less beneficial for teeth. Both raw and in sauce form, tomatoes are pretty acidic. The solution? Eat them as part of a meal to get the health benefits, and avoid the dental issues.
We already know that soda is bad for happiness and health. The combination of sugar, acids, and carbonation is a death sentence for teeth. Countless studies have linked soda consumption (both regular and diet) with tooth erosion and decay. Dental erosion and severe tooth decay related to soft drinks: a case report and literature review. Cheng R, Yang H, Shao MY. Journal of Zhejiang University. Science. B, 2009, Jul.;10(5):1862-1783. Diet, nutrition and the prevention of dental diseases. Moynihan P, Petersen PE. Public health nutrition, 2004, Apr.;7(1A):1368-9800.
Remember how Mom cautioned against a sugar binge on Halloween? Turns out, she was right: Chowing down on tons of sugar is bad for tooth health. The sweet stuff can cause cavities and get stuck in crevices (becoming tasty fodder for bacteria).
Hard candies are particularly bad for your pearly whites. Lollipops, mints, and any other sugary treats (even cough drops) that linger in the mouth expose teeth to sugar and acids for a long period of time. They’re much worse than a sugary treat that’s quickly chewed and swallowed (especially if they’re sour or tart flavored).
Avoiding dentures by age 40 doesn’t mean swearing off all dark liquids, sweets, and citrus fruits. Keeping teeth healthy (and making the dentist happy) is all about using techniques that limit damage. Here are a few easy tips:
- Eat acidic or sugary foods or drinks as part of a meal rather than on their own. Pro tip: Though brushing after a meal is generally a good idea, avoid brushing your teeth after consuming acidic foods. Acid softens your enamel, and brushing can speed up tooth wear.
- Limit snacking on acidic or high-sugar foods.
- Use a flouride toothpaste, which can help repair enamel, and reduce the risk of tooth decay and dental erosion.
- Don’t swish acidic drinks or hold them in your mouth—this exposes the teeth to acids for longer than necessary. Better yet, use a straw when drinking coffee, wine, or soda to protect enamel. The bartender might poke fun, but we’ll see who’s laughing at your next dentist appointment.
Originally published October 2013. Updated September 2015.