For healthy teeth and gums, you’ll need a toothbrush, toothpaste, floss — and a fork. Why? So you can boost your dental healthy by eating the foods you love — melons, carrots, cheese and even chocolate! We’re counting down the 12 best cavity-fighting foods and spices. Now that’s something to smile about!
If you’ve learned the hard way that sticky, sugary foods lead to cavities, you’ll be happy to know that certai foods, beverages and common herbs can prevent them. They’re part of a dental diet that safeguards healthy teeth by neutralizing harmful bacteria, fortifying enamel and reducing gum disease.
For example, crunchy fruits and vegetables ply off plaque like a toothbrush, while healthy fats from fish may reduce gum disease.
The latest research shows the mouth acts like a microcosm of the body.
“Conditions in the mouth often contribute to disease in the body,” says David Lerner, DDS, a holistic dentist from Yorktown, NY.
That’s because the root of most chronic diseases, above the neck and below, is inflammation-causing bacteria, which enter the bloodstream through the mouth. In fact, gum disease can signal — or even trigger — serious systemic condition like heart disease and diabetes.
“Gum disease is like the canary in the coal mine,” says Philippe P. Hujoel, DDS from Washington State University’s Epidemiology Department. Paying attention to a healthy dental diet is particularly important for women. Rising hormone levels — around puberty, menstruation, pregnancy and menopause — can actually spur the growth of bacteria that lead to plaque and attach healthy teeth, says Rhea Haugseth, DDS, president-elect of the American Academy of Dentistry.
So include more of these 12 foods in your diet, and your next dental appointment may be a breeze.
- Crunchy Vegetables: Crunchy, water-rich snacks, like carrots, celery and apples, act like nature’s toothbrush to keep your teeth healthy. Chewing crispy vegetables scrapes teeth and gradually chips off harmful plaque between them. Plus they stimulate saliva production, which neutralizes Steptococcus mutans, the bacteria that triggers cavities in healthy teeth, according to the American Dental Hygienists Association.
- Fish: Gum disease is 20% lower in people who eat a diet rich in omega-3s, particularly docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish and linolenic acid (LNA) from plant-food sources, according to a 2010 study by Harvard researcher Asghar Z. Naqvi, MPH. Fish are rich in DHA and EPA, while LNA rich foods include flaxseed, walnuts, pecans (whole and nut butters) and oils such as canola, hemp, pumpkin seed and extra virgin olive oil. Because researchers asked participants to guess their intake of omega-3 foods, the actual amount of DHA, EPA and/or LNA wasn’t exact. But they concluded health benefits came primarily from diet, not supplements. Those who used supplements didn’t show any additional advantage, researchers say.
- Beta-Carotene-Packed Produce: Orange-colored vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and winter squash are loaded with beta-carotene (vitamin A), an essential nutrient for forming strong bones, and healthy teeth and gum tissue. Diets low in these nutrients can lead to increased tooth loss, research shows. Meals high in simple carbohydrates, like rice and sugary foods, and low in vitamin A-rich vegetables resulted in more decay than those with fruits and vegetables rich in beta-carotene, according to a 2009 study of more than 20,000 Japanese dentists. Best sources are orange-colored fruits and vegetables like carrots, cantaloupe, apricots, papaya and squash, as well as green leafy vegetables like spinach and kale.
- Mushrooms: When plaque lingers on teeth, it hardens and forms tartar, which leads to gum disease. Only a dental hygienist can remove tartar, but shiitake mushrooms can stop plaque from forming in the first place. A 2000Japanese study at Nihon University found that a sugar in shiitake mushrooms (lentinan) creates an unfriendly environment for various plaque-causing Streptococcus bacteria. Beating plaque is as easy as adding a cup of shiitake mushrooms to a stir-fry or stew.
- Vitamin C-Rich Fruits and Veggies: Building strong gum tissue requires a plentiful diet of fruits and vegetables because of their vitamin C content. It helps prevent gingivitis, a disease that causes gums to redden, swell, bleed and ultimately lends to tooth loss. According to research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), people who consume less than 60 milligrams (mg) of vitamin C per day had nearly 1-1/2 times more risk of developing severe gingivitis than those who took in 180 mg a day — the same amount you’d find in a half cup of guava. A cup of raw broccoli or half a cantaloupe has 75 mg of vitamin C, nearly a full day’s minimum requirement for women (the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) is 85 mg for women 19 and older. Do you smoke? Then you’ll need 35 mg more vitamin C per day to ward off gingivitis, because cigarettes reduce vitamin C levels in the blood, according to a 2000 study by the State University of New York at Buffalo, published in the Journal of Periodontology.
- Cheese: Everyone knows dairy products are tooth-friendly because of calcium. But here’s another reason to eat cheese: It can stop cavities. Cavities like an acidic environment, and certain cheeses, like aged cheddar, Swiss, mozzarella and Monterey Jack, help balance pH levels in your mouth. When eaten alone as a snack or at the end of a meal, these stimulate saliva flow, which clears the mouth of food debris and neutralizes harmful acids. Furthermore, teeth constantly go through a process of shedding and regaining bone-building minerals, called demineralization and remineralization. When the calcium and phosphorus in cheese combine with saliva, the reaction restores minerals, thus keeping teeth stronger, Haugseth says.
- Almonds: To stay strong, healthy teeth need a combination of phosphorus for bone formation; vitamin D and magnesium for calcium absorption; vitamin B to prevent mouth sores; and vitamin C and potassium for strong gum tissue. One food packed with all these healthy-teeth nutrients is an ounce of almonds (about 20-25 nuts). Almonds also neutralize cavity-causing acids, says David Leader, DDS, assistant clinical professor at Tufts Dental School in Boston.
- Chocolate: Candy is a dentists’ nemesis, but unique properties in cocoa and its husk actually maintain healthy teeth, according to several new studies. Cocoa extracts work as well as fluoride to strengthen teeth and protect them from decay, Japanese researchers at Osaka University discovered. But not just any chocolate will do. Tulane University researchers compared different types of European chocolate and found that dark chocolate, made from 70% cocoa, had the most protective effect, because it contains the most polyphenols (health-boosting compounds) to protect teeth. And it doesn’t take much. Study participants ate a small 15 gram (g) piece of dark chocolate (approximately 76 calories). The 2007 study’s lead researcher Arman Sadeghpour, Ph.D., has patented, and is producing a new peppermint-cocoa toothpaste called Theodent, which he says is an effective natural alternative to fluoride toothpaste. The Tulane study could prove beneficial especially since the US Department of Health and Human Services concluded in 2011 that Americans might be getting too much fluoride from drinking water and food sources. Too much fluoride can lead to fluorosis, resulting in a permanent staining of teeth and brittle bones.
- Tea: A cup of tea can do more than sooth nerves. It’s good for healthy teeth too. Black or green tea is a rich source of micronutrients that reduce gum disease and prevent cavities, according to a 2004 Rutgers University study. Researchers showed antioxidants in green tea, called catechins, reduce gum inflammation. While some avoid tea for freer of staining teeth, black tea contains polyphenols that produce a protective film that coats and shields teeth from cavity-causing bacteria.
- Herbs and Spices: Great taste is just one reason to use sweet-smelling herbs. Spices like cinnamon and green herbs like mint, parsley and thyme and flush with monoterpenes, highly volatile compounds that make breath smell fresh and, more importantly, contain antibacterial properties that prevent cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans bacteria. This is especially true for chewing gum. In 2004, University of Illinois at Chicago researchers tested various chewing guns and found that brands with essential plant oils reduced bacteria that cause bad breath and cavities. Though the oils were used for flavor, even a small amount reduced bacteria, says Christine Wu, professor of periodontics and associate dean for research at the UIC College of Dentistry. The helpful plant extracts were cinnamon and mint. Artificially flavored gum did little for dental health. In fact, the original formula for Listerine was made from a blend of menthol (from mint) and thymol (from thyme). So next time you see a sprig of mint on your plate, don’t leave it. Eat it.
- Onions: Your great-grandmother may not have known why onions relieve toothaches, but she was on the right track when she put a piece on a painful tooth or gum tissue. Onions contain vitamin C and a host of antibacterial compounds like quercetin and isothiocyanates, according to research by the NIH. These plant-based antioxidant reduce bacteria and relieve inflammation, not to mention dental worries.
- Wasabi: Japanese horseradish is a hot ingredient in the culinary world, but this spicy condiment also safeguards healthy teeth by fighting bacteria that cause cavities and gum abscesses. Wasabi root also helps reduce Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori), a bacteria that leads to stomach ulcers, unpleasant burping and bad breath, according to a 2004 study at Juntendo University School of Medicine in Tokyo. Researchers found it contains a potent antioxidant that kills off these ulcer-causing pests.