Diet and Oral Health

Medically Reviewed by Evan Frisbee, DMD on October 31, 2021
4 min read

To prevent cavities and maintain good oral health, your diet -- what you eat and how often you eat -- are important factors. Changes start the minute you eat certain foods. Bacteria in the mouth convert sugars and carbohydrates from the foods you eat to acids, and it's the acids that begin to attack the enamel on teeth, starting the decay process. Too many carbohydrates from sugars (like cake, cookies and candies) and savory foods and starches (like pretzels and potato chips) can cause tooth decay. The more often you eat and snack, the more frequently you’re exposing your teeth to the cycle of decay. Time between meals allows saliva to wash away food particles that bacteria would otherwise feast on. Frequent snacking, without brushing immediately afterward, gives bacteria constant fuel. Try to limit snacks as much as possible -- no more than one or two a day. Brush teeth after each snack, if possible.

The best food choices for the health of your mouth include cheeses (especially aged cheeses like cheddar, Monterey Jack, and Swiss), chicken or other meats and nuts. These foods are thought to protect tooth enamel because they have the calcium and phosphorus needed to remineralize teeth (a natural process by which minerals are redeposited in tooth enamel after being removed by acids). If you’re lactose intolerant and can’t eat or drink milk products, green vegetables such as broccoli and spinach are high in calcium, too.

Other food choices include firm/crunchy fruits and vegetables (like example, apples, pears, melons, celery, and cucumbers). These foods have a high water content, which dilutes the effects of the sugars they contain, and stimulate the flow of saliva (which helps protect against decay by washing away food particles and buffering acid). Acidic foods, such as citrus fruits, tomatoes, and lemons, should be eaten as part of a larger meal to minimize the acid from them.

Poor food choices for oral health include candy -- such as lollipops, hard candies, jellybeans, and mints -- cookies, cakes, pies, breads, muffins, potato chips, pretzels, french fries, bananas,  granola bars, caramel, honey, molasses, syrup, raisins, and other dried fruits. These foods have large amounts of sugar and some can stick to teeth, giving a fuel source for bacteria. Cough drops should be used only when necessary as they, like sugary candy, coat the teeth with sugar. If you plan to give your child any sweets, give them as desserts immediately following the meal. There's usually an increased amount of saliva in the mouth around mealtime, making it easier to wash food away from teeth. The mealtime beverage also helps to wash away food particles on teeth.

The best beverage choices include water (especially fluoridated water) and unsweetened tea. Limit your consumption of sugar-containing drinks, including soft drinks, lemonade, and coffee or tea with added sugar. Also, avoid day-long sipping of sugar-containing drinks -- day-long sipping exposes your teeth to constant sugar and, in turn, constant decay-causing acids.

Sugar substitutes are available that look and taste like sugar, but they are not digested the same way as sugar, so they don't "feed" the bacteria in the mouth and don't produce decay-causing acids. They include erythritol, isomalt, sorbitol, and mannitol.  Foods that have the sugar substitute xylitol may actually help prevent cavities. It has been shown to reduce the amount of bacteria in the mouth and the chewing action helps increase the flow of saliva.

Other sugar substitutes that are available in the U.S. include saccharin, advantame, aspartame (Equal), acesulfame potassium (Sunett), Neotame (Newtame), and sucralose (Splenda).

Sugarless or sugar-free food sometimes simply means that no sugar was added to the foods during processing. But this does not mean that the foods do not contain other natural sweeteners, such as honey, molasses, evaporated cane sugar, fructose, barley malt, or rice syrup. These natural sweeteners contain the same number of calories as sugar and can be just as harmful to teeth.

To determine if the sugarless or sugar-free foods you buy contain natural sweeteners, examine the ingredients label. Words that end in '-ose' (like sucrose and fructose) usually indicate the presence of a natural sweetener. On the label, look under sugars or carbohydrates.

Chewing sugarless gum is actually beneficial to your teeth as chewing helps dislodge food that becomes stuck to your teeth and also increases saliva flow to buffer (neutralize) mouth acids. Some gums contain ingredients that can reduce cavities as well as heal areas on the teeth where cavities are beginning. Chewing gum can be a problem, however, if you have jaw pain or other issues with your jaw.

These are some basic tips for caring for teeth and gums:

  • Brush your teeth regularly. Brush at least twice a day and preferably 30-60 minutes after every meal and snack.  If brushing between meals is not possible, at least rinse the mouth with water several times.
  • Use a fluoride-containing toothpaste. The fluoride seeps inside the tooth to reverse early decay.
  • Floss at least once a day to help remove particles between teeth and below the gum line.
  • Use a mouth rinse daily.
  • Visit your dentist regularly for check-ups and cleanings -- typically twice a year. Getting regular dental checkups will also help catch any developing dental problems early.
  • Eat a variety of foods to maintain overall health. Eat fewer foods containing sugars and starches between meals. If you must snack, choose nutritious foods, such as cheese, raw vegetables, plain yogurt, or a firm fruit (such as an apple).