Eat for good oral health

In 30 years we've come a long way toward understanding the causes of tooth decay.

Originally, only one culprit food – sugar – was blamed. But now we know that there are many other factors involved.

Find out how to take good care of your teeth – not only by maintaining good oral hygiene, but also by eating the right foods in the right combinations.

Step 1: Know your mouth
To understand the causes of tooth decay, one needs to keep in mind that we all have the following in our mouths:

  • teeth that are vulnerable to attack by acids;
  • saliva that circulates in the mouth and is capable of rinsing acid from the teeth;
  • micro-organisms that ferment carbohydrates to form acids.

Throughout the day, you must try to limit the amount of time your teeth are exposed to the acid produced by the bacteria in your mouth.

You can do this by keeping your teeth clean, by eating less of the foods that bacteria proliferate on, by eating more foods that have a positive effect on your teeth, by combining the "bad" foods with the "good" ones to neutralise any negative effect, and by reducing frequency of eating.

Step 2: Good dental care
Appropriate oral hygiene is still the most important factor in keeping teeth and gums clean and healthy.

Therefore, before we go into the intricacies of what you should and shouldn't eat, check whether these guidelines form part of your routine:

  • Brush your teeth twice a day with fluoride toothpaste.
  • Clean between your teeth with dental floss once a day.
  • Consider using fluoride mouthwashes and sugar-free chewing gum after taking acidic food or drinks as these encourage remineralisation of the teeth.
  • Do not eat after cleaning teeth at bedtime, as salivary flow decreases as we sleep.
  • Visit your dentist every six months for a check-up.
  • Seek professional advice before using aesthetic products (e.g. teeth whiteners) that could have a harmful effect on your teeth.

Step 3: The right foods
When it comes to "food" for the micro-organisms that live in our mouths, sugar isn't the only culprit anymore.

Scientists now know that all fermentable carbohydrates – which include all types of sugar and starch, both in liquid and solid form – should be taken into consideration. Micro-organisms ferment carbohydrates to form acids, which sets the scene for decay.

Take note of the different effects of different types of foods:

Foods that are bad for your teethNeutral foodsFoods that are good for your teeth
- Crackers, pretzels, sweets, cookies, pasta, rice, bread, cereals and porridge.
- Any form of sugar, including brown sugar and honey.
- All fresh, dried and canned fruit.
- All juices and cooldrinks, and any drink that contains sugar.
- Protein foods such as eggs, fish, meat and chicken.
- Sugar-free gum.
- Cheeses such as aged cheddar and Swiss cheese.
- Gum containing xylitol.

Carbohydrates should form part of any healthy diet, so the aim shouldn't be to eliminate these foods. Instead, try to combine "bad" foods with "good" or "neutral" foods whenever possible.

Another good idea is to finish a carbohydrate-rich meal/snack off with a small piece of cheese (just keep the added calories in mind) or sugar-free gum.

Step 4: Frequency of eating
Time is of the essence when it comes to oral health – the more time bacteria has to metabolise fermentable carbohydrates, produce acids and cause a drop in salivary pH, the greater the negative effect on your teeth.

To reduce the time teeth are exposed to these factors, it's important to:

  • avoid continuous snacking and sipping of drinks;
  • allow time between meals for saliva to neutralise acids and repair the teeth;
  • decrease frequency and contact with acidic foods and drinks;
  • avoid brushing teeth immediately after consuming acidic foods, drinks, citrus fruits and juices – this allows time for remineralisation to occur.
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