Your Diet and Your Mouth
Diet and Tooth Decay There is a direct and well-established link between your diet and your chances of getting tooth decay. As soon as you eat certain foods, your teeth are placed under attack. In the case of decay, this attack is not from the food itself but from bacteria in your mouth. The bacteria use the foods for energy and release acid as a by-product. It is this acid that causes tooth decay. This is where the phrase ‘acid-attack’ comes from. Certain foods will be easier for the bacteria to use and therefore give rise to acid-attack of the teeth. Simple sugars such as glucose and fructose are the worst. Most people know that such foods e.g. sugar, chocolate, candy, soft drinks and toffee are the main culprits in harming the teeth. But you may not be aware that some carbohydrates are broken down in the mouth to release sugars. Other carbohydrates are less harmful as they only break down once further down the gut. Such ‘bad’ carbohydrates, as far as our teeth are concerned, include:
- Breakfast cereals.
Do watch out for ‘hidden’ sugars in foods, especially processed foods. Check the label and you might be surprised at how much sugar there is in some products!
How Does Your Body Naturally Protect your Teeth?
During and after eating, the body releases saliva. Saliva helps protect both the teeth and gums by:
- Clearing away foods and drinks.
- Neutralizing acids in the mouth from food and bacteria.
- ‘Remineralizing’ the teeth that have been attacked by plaque acid. This means the saliva builds up the surface of the tooth again by replacing the lost calcium, fluoride and other chemicals.
‘Remineralization’ is increased and improved by fluoride present in toothpaste, mouthwashes and some foods/drinks. The level of acid attack quickly rises immediately after eating and then slowly falls afterwards under the effect of the saliva. The mouth needs time to recover after eating. Whether decay sets in or not, and how quickly it may spread if it occurs, will depend on:
- The length of time the mouth is allowed to rest between meals. Eat/snack often and the teeth will be under attack for longer. Eat only at mealtimes, several times a day and the teeth can recover between meals.
- The amount of saliva you produce. More saliva is better. This can be helped with chewing sugar-free gum after eating. Sugar free gum usually also contains Xylitol, which attacks harmful bacteria in the mouth.
- How long the food persists in the mouth. Therefore sticky foods, such as toffee and potato crisps are very bad. Likewise food-traps in the mouth can lead to localized decay very quickly. Rinsing out after meals is helpful in clearing away the food.
So, if you ‘graze’ at food, whereby you are constantly snacking or drinking every hour or so, your teeth will be under acid attack with little chance for the saliva to rebuild the teeth during the day. Your teeth are therefore at high risk of decay. Examples of bad snacking habits between meals:
- A cup of tea or coffee with sugar.
- Sipping on a fizzy drink.
- Taking hours over a snack, e.g. popcorn with a movie.
- Nibbling at a packet of candy during a car-journey.
- Sucking a sweet/candy for long periods.
You can see the pattern! It is not the amount of harmful food/drink you consume but the frequency of such that does the real harm! So the occasional sweet food/drink is OK. If you must eat something sugary, this is best done immediately after meal-times and then rinse out your mouth.