By Kristen Stewart; Medically reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
Eat. Brush. Floss. Repeat! You know the keys to dental health involve a toothbrush, dental floss, and avoiding certain foods (think sticky, sugary treats).
But were you aware that certain foods are actually good for your teeth and gums? Turns out, simply eating lunch could be a part of your daily dental routine.
For instance, foods rich in calcium help ensure not only strong bones, but also healthy teeth. Other beneficial snacks include those containing polyphenols and probiotics, which can help encourage a healthy environment in your mouth.
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So, go ahead - take a bite into these tooth-friendly foods (plus, check out which ones to avoid).
Make Your Dentist Proud: Healthy Foods for Healthy Teeth
Milk. "Milk is one of the main sources of sugars in the diet," says Ellie Phillips, DDS, a founding member of the nonprofit American Academy for Oral Systemic Health and author of Kiss Your Dentist Goodbye.
But that's not an excuse to skimp on the white stuff: Drinking milk can actually promote healthy teeth and bones. "The sugar in milk is lactose, which is the least damaging to teeth," explains Dr. Phillips, and the calcium found in the beverage helps kids develop strong baby and adult teeth.
In addition, Phillips says, studies have shown that when cavity-causing foods are eaten along with milk (cookies, anyone?), the milk can actually help protect teeth from damage. If you don't drink milk, ask your dentist about toothpastes that can remineralize your teeth.
However, as good for your teeth as milk is during the day, it can be a hazard to them at night. Always be sure to brush before sleeping, and think twice before putting a child to bed with a bottle of milk (or juice or other sweetened drink). These beverages can linger on the teeth, causing extensive damage.
Green tea. Certain teas may promote dental health because they contain polyphenols, which have the potential to clean plaque from the teeth. In fact, researchers in Japan found that people who drank one or more cups of green tea a day had decreased odds of losing their teeth. However, Phillips warns that even though teas may be good for your teeth, they can be acidic, which can be harmful - so sip carefully.
Cheese. "Cheese has similar properties to milk and makes the mouth nonacidic and raises calcium levels around teeth, which is very protective," explains Phillips. "Studies with Dutch Edam cheese showed that children ages 7 to 9 who ate a 5-gram cube after breakfast each day for two years had significantly fewer cavities than other children."
For your dental health, look for cheeses with a bacterial element, such as blue cheese, Brie, or Camembert, to take advantage of cheese's probiotic benefits. A note for grown-ups: The acidic nature of wine and beer can hurt your teeth, so pare some good-for-your-teeth cheese with that alcoholic beverage.
Crunchy fruits and vegetables. Good saliva flow is important in creating an alkaline environment in the mouth, thereby protecting teeth from exposure to acid. Crunchy vegetables help create that flow of saliva; also, some fruits and vegetables contain polyphenols, which also stimulate saliva. Keep in mind that some fruits are acidic and that they all contain sugars, so although they're still a good choice, follow up with good dental hygiene after eating.
Yogurt. Some dental problems are caused by harmful germs in the mouth. That's why it's important to decrease the bad bacteria and repopulate the mouth with healthy, protective bacteria. To help encourage a healthy mouth environment, consider organic whole-milk yogurt with probiotics and proteins.
Raisins. "Although most people think of raisins as sticky, studies show that our perception of them is inaccurate," says Phillips. "Raisins are high in fiber and contain the same healthy polyphenols as grapes. They also appear to contain a phytochemical called oleanolic acid that is antibacterial against certain plaque bacteria." Important to note, however, is that raisins are acidic, so they're best eaten as part of a meal followed by protective cheese or milk.
Shiitake mushrooms. Researchers have found that these mushrooms have the potential to encourage good dental health by remineralizing teeth and discouraging acid that can be harmful.
Beware These Bad-for-Your-Teeth Foods
Though it's great to eat foods that can assist in preventing cavities, it's also important to avoid some real dangers.
Lemons and other citrus fruits can actually pull minerals out of teeth. And cereals can also cause damage with bits of flakes sticking to the teeth for hours and sugars feeding bacteria and producing acids that erode teeth.
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Of course, diet sodas are a big no-no. Their acidity levels are "close to battery acid," Phillips says. "These drinks have the ability to erode enamel and make it brittle, more easily broken, and porous so teeth stain easily and darken in colour."
Ultimately, foods can make a difference -- in good ways and bad. Choose wisely!